SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council will consider establishing South Portland as a “sanctuary city,” a move that could invite a legal battle with the Trump administration and jeopardize future federal funding.

The council is set to debate a proposal that aims to block federal and state agencies from deputizing or enlisting the city’s police officers in efforts to deport immigrants or target Muslims for religious persecution.

If the proposal is approved, South Portland would become the first community in Maine and one of more than 170 jurisdictions nationwide – cities, counties and states – that have adopted similar measures against assisting federal immigration officers, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. The council will take up the matter during an April 24 workshop as a proposed amendment to a resolution passed in February to show support for immigrants and Muslims.

Sponsored by Councilor Eben Rose, the proposed amendment says South Portland police will not assist, cooperate or provide information in any federal raids, detentions or deportations of immigrants or Muslims without a warrant or subpoena.

It also says “South Portland will not assist or cooperate with registration or surveillance programs of Muslims, or make any attempt to make our friends, neighbors and loved ones the enemy.”

“Our charge as a City Council is to protect the health, safety and welfare of our city’s inhabitants,” Rose said Wednesday. “If the president or others in his charge have another agenda, it’s not our responsibility to help them carry it out.”

IMMIGRANT POPULATION GROWING

In January, President Trump signed an executive order encouraging local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws and setting up a process for cutting off federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions. The move was widely seen as a step by Trump to make good on a campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants deemed to be in the country illegally.

Last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that sanctuary jurisdictions could lose as much as $4.1 billion in future federal grants for refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities, and he suggested that the government would come after grants that already have been awarded.

Rose’s proposal comes as South Portland’s immigrant population grows, especially in its public schools, and as the council increasingly takes progressive stands that reflect an evolving and overwhelmingly liberal constituency in what for years has been a working-class community.

The council passed a resolution Feb. 7 condemning violence and hate speech and expressing solidarity with Muslims, immigrants and all those targeted for their ethnicity, race or religion. The resolution noted that 7 percent of the city’s population is foreign born. Westbrook has adopted a similar resolution and Cape Elizabeth is considering one as well.

South Portland joins several other Maine communities, including Portland and Hallowell, that recently have considered sanctuary status.

Rose acknowledged that, as part of a resolution, his proposed amendment would be a position or policy statement rather than a matter of law. Still, he believes the council should take a stand against institutionalized targeting of immigrants and Muslims, despite the risk to federal funding.

“Our local government doesn’t fall apart at the whims and objectives of (the Trump administration),” Rose said. “Our checks and balances are being strained, but that doesn’t mean our local government has to acquiesce.”

Rose said he developed the sanctuary city proposal after he sensed strong support for a more aggressive response to the Trump administration’s efforts among the 20 people who spoke in favor of the resolution supporting immigrants and Muslims.

No one at that meeting spoke against the resolution, but former Councilor Mike Pock, an avowed tea party Republican, believes the resolution, with or without Rose’s proposed amendment, is unnecessary and meaningless because it’s not a city ordinance or part of the city charter.

“It doesn’t mean squat,” Pock said. “If they can’t enforce the laws, why do we need laws? They’re just catering to their base. I don’t think police should go down the street, checking everyone’s ID, but they should enforce the law.”

EXPLORING POLICY RAMIFICATIONS

Mayor Patti Smith said there is great concern among the seven city councilors about the invasive reach of the Trump administration’s immigration policy and the potential of losing federal funding if the city doesn’t cooperate.

“I’m interested in exploring the topic and the local ramifications of taking a step like this,” Smith said. “I’m a firm proponent of human rights and I can appreciate the human element of the misuse of government power.”

Smith said she hopes to gain greater clarity when Police Chief Ed Googins makes a presentation at the April 24 workshop on his department’s current policies and practices related to working with immigration officers. Googins said he wanted to save the bulk of his comments for the workshop, although he noted that the department has written policies for standard operating procedures that prohibit biased policing or profiling.

“We’re not immigration police,” Googins said. “We do pride ourselves in our relationships with law enforcement across all agencies, but we don’t deal with immigration law. It’s not under our purview. We don’t ask (about immigration status), though we may learn it in the course of a criminal investigation.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com