City Commission votes to declare Lawrence a ‘welcoming’ city for immigrants, pursue additional support

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

Following calls from students for Lawrence to declare itself a sanctuary community, city commissioners voted at their meeting Tuesday to proclaim Lawrence a “welcoming” city for immigrants.

The proclamation states, in part, that the city is an inclusive community that values immigrants and that the safety of all people should be protected, but does not use the term “sanctuary.” Commissioners said the distinction was important in the midst of executive orders from President Donald Trump and potential state legislation that could threaten millions of dollars of federal and state funding were Lawrence to be designated a sanctuary city.

“I think staff did a really good job to make sure that we did not cross that line,” Commissioner Mike Amyx said.

Along with the proclamation, commissioners approved five other recommendations from staff of supportive actions the city can take. Those include authorizing staff to write letters of opposition to the pending state legislation, reach out to interested agencies to discuss the city’s position, and work with the University of Kansas to co-sponsor a community presentation on immigration law.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said that he thought a community conversation that covered immigration jurisdiction and what the city does and does not have power over was a “key piece of public education.”

One example of an area the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over is the Douglas County Jail. Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay noted that the City Commission does not have authority over the jail, which is operated by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office reports all inmate information as required by federal law, and does not honor stand-alone 48-hour detainer holds from federal immigration agencies.

A proclamation, by definition, does not have the effect of a law or ordinance, but Tuesday’s meeting included an overview of what policies and practices affecting immigration exist in the city, specifically those of the Lawrence police department.

Capt. Anthony Brixius said that in the line of its duties, the Lawrence police department does not check or report people’s immigration status to federal immigration agencies, with exceptions made for some felony investigations. Apart from being outside of the department’s local duties, Brixius said that practice is important to the relationship with the community.

“If we are running the immigration status of every victim or witness that we come into contact with, we don’t have the ability to have open relationships (and) get information to be able to solve crimes,” Brixius said.

The requests, from the students of Lawrence High School and the University of Kansas, came on the heels of the election of Trump. Following up on campaign promises, Trump issued an executive order in January to ramp up immigration enforcement and threatened to withhold federal funds from sanctuary communities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration agencies.

KU Student Body President Stephonn Alcorn told commissioners that they could show their support for marginalized groups and still receive their funding.

“I urge you all to please pass these recommendations,” Alcorn said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the “welcoming” proclamation, as well as the five recommendations that backed additional supports for immigrants.

In other business, the commission:

•Deferred a decision on an ordinance that would license and regulate massage therapy businesses within the city, as requested by the district attorney’s office. Massage therapy businesses are currently unregulated by state law or city ordinance, and the district attorney’s office has called for regulations on them to combat human trafficking. A group representing local massage businesses spoke in opposition to some provisions of the ordinance, such as client record-keeping, saying they were onerous, but was generally in support of licensing. Commissioners deferred the item in order to discuss it further, including collaborating with county leaders, at a future work session.

• Adopted the City of Lawrence strategic plan and eight short-term priorities. The priorities were identified by commissioners at a meeting Feb. 20, and include finishing the East Ninth Street Project, bringing fiber internet to the community and developing a master plan for downtown. The priorities are related to broader elements of the strategic plan, which were broken into seven “critical success factors” that covered topics such as economic growth, fiscal planning and commitment to core services.