This fall’s elections should say a lot about how Rhode Islanders feel about immigration rights. It’s been a hot-button issue for many voters and Providence is in the thick of it.
Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, the son of Guatemalan immigrants who settled in Providence, has often pushed back against the Trump administration’s policies to fully enlist municipalities in the federal crackdown to ferret out undocumented immigrants or risk getting cut off from federal public-safety grants.
Joined by Central Falls, Providence has gone so far as to recently file a lawsuit against the feds on the issue, arguing that detaining suspected undocumented immigrants too long could lead to legal liabilities.
In a recent interview with Providence Business News, Elorza said cooperating with the feds on the issue would be a misuse of the city’s limited police resources.
“Our police department should be committed to chasing down the most violent criminals,” said Elorza, who faces two challengers in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.
“If we turn our police department into a federal immigration force, they’re effectively asking us to shake down people who forgot to put their turn signal on [while driving]; who didn’t fully stop at a stop sign; and questioning and quizzing whether they’re in the country legally,” he said.
Such policies, the mayor said, have a chilling effect on the willingness of immigrants and those close to them to report crimes.
“Making it so that people are afraid to call the police makes us all less safe,” he said.
Elorza’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Robert DeRobbio and Kobi Dennis, said they agree with him on the issue – to a point.
DeRobbio said the city “shouldn’t go out and look” for undocumented immigrants, but the city should follow federal laws and rules and be reluctant to risk federal dollars.
Dennis said he doesn’t like the federal crackdown on immigrants, but the city should not get too caught up in it at the expense of helping other disenfranchised and impoverished groups.
The two independent candidates for Providence mayor – Jeffrey Lemire and Dianne Witman – could not be immediately reached for comment.
Elorza said his stance on immigration rights shouldn’t be mistaken for being soft on crime.
“If a [detainee] is a violent criminal, we want to be partners with the federal government. If you have a warrant – a pre-signed warrant – we’ll hold this person gladly,” he explained.
In the suburbs southwest of Providence, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a Republican candidate for governor, sees it differently. Cranston has agreed to cooperate in carrying out the federal government’s immigration policies and Fung promised that, if elected governor, Rhode Island will not be a “sanctuary state.”
Elorza has a different plan for Providence.
“I’ve said that we’re going to stand up for our immigrant community and we’ve said very proudly that we are a sanctuary city,” he said.
Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Blake@PBN.com.