Portland long has been a city that embraces immigrants. It recently created a new city office dedicated to integrating new Mainers into the community and economy, and city leaders have repeatedly clashed with Gov. Paul LePage about their decision to provide emergency public assistance to people seeking political asylum.

Now a group of residents is pressuring Portland to stand up to President Trump and take support of immigrants to a new level.

Trump signed an executive order last week to encourage local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws and setting up a process for cutting off federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities, a term generally used to describe communities that refuse to help federal immigration officers. The move was widely seen as a step by Trump to make good on a campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants.

Portland doesn’t qualify as a sanctuary city under the strictest definition because it has not refused to cooperate with immigration authorities. But a group called Progressive Portland is urging city leaders to take a step in that direction.

While not calling for the city to declare itself a sanctuary, the group is circulating a petition asking city leaders “to refuse to cooperate with Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional attacks on immigrants and Muslims.” As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had nearly 1,500 signatures.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he is trying to figure out whether Trump’s order would force the city to participate in the deportation of immigrants. If so, he’s willing to bring a proposal to the City Council to prevent it.

“(Trump’s order) is very broad,” Strimling said. “We need to get a better sense of what they’re going to do.”

Maine does not have any communities that meet the strict definition of sanctuary cities. Officials in Gardiner and Hallowell denied Monday a statement by the Maine Republican Party that they planned to pursue the designation in response to Trump’s order. Other cities around the country also are weighing their status as a way to declare defiance of the Trump immigration crackdown. The City Council in Birmingham, Alabama, passed a resolution Tuesday declaring itself a sanctuary city, and Cincinnati declared itself a sanctuary city on Monday.

Pious Ali, a Muslim immigrant from Ghana who was elected to the Portland City Council in November, said he appreciates the support from the community, but he would like to have a discussion with the Portland police chief, legal experts and the larger immigrant community about the impacts of any additional ordinances. He’s concerned about “unintended consequences” for refusing to cooperate with the federal government.

Portland now has a local ordinance prohibiting police officers from asking about immigration status, although officers do assist federal agencies on immigration issues when asked.

“Portland already has an ordinance in the books,” Ali said. “I think it’s very strong. It’s one step away from calling Portland a sanctuary city.”

SANCTUARY VS. $30 MILLION IN GRANTS

Trump’s executive order would empower state and local law officers to enforce immigration laws through formal agreements. That would essentially add layers of local immigration enforcement on top of federal enforcement.

“Right now there is nothing in the executive order that is requiring the police to do anything, and so it would be premature to comment or opine on that issue,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in response to a request for a legal opinion from the city’s attorney. “(Section 8 of the order) empowers state/local officials to enter into agreements to perform these functions, but doesn’t require it. So until anything further happens, we can’t comment.”

Trump’s order also says that the administration would seek to eliminate federal grant funding to “sanctuary jurisdictions.” The order does not define what constitutes sanctuary status, but says the secretary of Homeland Security would have the authority to decide which communities fit that description.

According to city officials, Portland last year received over $30 million in federal grants, some of which is passed on to social services providers. It’s unclear how much of that money could be legally withheld if Portland is determined to be a sanctuary city and the administration makes good on its promise to cut off federal funding.

Trump’s order is aimed at immigrants who enter the country illegally, those who overstay or otherwise violate their visas, or those who engage in criminal conduct – whether convicted or simply charged.

While not refusing to assist, Portland decided in 2003 that it did not want to enforce immigration laws on its own.

A city code called “Prohibition on Immigration Status Checks” bars Portland police and other city employees from asking about the immigration status of an individual, unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that an individual had previously been deported, returned and committed a felony. The order does not prohibit local officers from complying with federal immigration laws when required by law.

The city ordinance states: “Unless otherwise required by law or by court order, no city police officer or employee shall inquire into the immigration status of any person, or engage in activities for the purpose of ascertaining the immigration status of any person.”

SUPPORT FOR STRONGER CITY ORDINANCE

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants, said the city ordinance has been working well to foster a trusting relationship between police and the immigrant community. However, immigrants have grown more concerned since Trump took office.

Roche said the advocacy project’s regular legal outreach sessions to the immigrant community have drawn hundreds of people. “Now more than ever, we need to make sure immigrants are not afraid to go to the police,” she said.

Roche said the group would support strengthening or expanding Portland’s ordinance to state that local police officers would not be required to enforce federal immigration laws.

However, the group is concerned about any formal designation as a sanctuary city.

“I certainly would support any measures by the city to enact ordinances that would prohibit the federal government from forcing local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws,” Roche said. “I haven’t heard any particular concerns about anything happening in Portland. We think it’s good that Portland has the ordinance it has.”

Progressive Portland, a fledgling nonprofit group led by Steven Biel, a former campaign manager for MoveOn.org, launched the petition drive urging Strimling, City Manager Jon Jennings and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck “to refuse to cooperate with Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional attacks on immigrants and Muslims.”

“Trump’s order is blatantly illegal, but we’re hearing rumors that some in Portland’s city government might be thinking about collaborating with Trump rather than risking being labeled as a ‘sanctuary city,’ ” the group said in an email Sunday.

The mayor, immigrant advocates and city councilors said they have heard no discussions in City Hall about enforcing Trump’s orders. The report prompted Strimling and Sauschuck to issue formal statements emphasizing that Portland employees, including police officers, do not and will not inquire about a person’s immigration status.

Because the term “sanctuary city” does not have a single legal definition, Portland’s decision that police should not inquire about immigration status has led some to label it a sanctuary city even though the city’s officers do cooperate with federal law enforcement when asked.

Gov. Paul LePage, for one, criticized Portland as being a sanctuary city. The Center of Immigration Studies, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., lists roughly 300 jurisdictions in the U.S. as sanctuary cities. The center listed no Maine jurisdictions in 2015, but Portland has since been added to the list even though city policies have not changed.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said in an email that designating Portland as a sanctuary city could have unintended consequences.

“There’s no official definition of what those words mean, and they offer no guarantee of protection from the federal government,” Ray said. “In fact, making such a declaration would likely accomplish the opposite and make Portland a target for federal investigation and interference.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

filed under: