On Dec. 7, 2016, Police Chief Kyle J. Johnson of the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) issued an open letter to Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 addressing the police department’s commitment to serve and protect the community amid concerns about possible new immigration laws.
“We want the community we serve to know that the Williamstown Police Department will continue to be committed to building and maintaining positive relationships within the community,” Johnson said in his open letter.
Johnson elaborated that the WPD would not involve itself in any investigations involving civil immigration laws since these cases fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government. “All of those within our boundaries should be completely confident that we are here to assist them in any crisis situation,” Johnson said. This statement resembles the prerequisites of the sanctuary cities and campuses that many individuals around the country have been pressing to safeguard immigrants and undocumented students.
According to the American Immigration Council, sanctuary cities are defined as “trust acts or community policing policies that … make communities safer and increase communication between police and their residents without imposing any restrictions on federal law enforcement activities.”
The term arose in the 1980s when many religious establishments advocated for the protection of thousands of Central Americans who sought refuge from civil wars and did not receive asylum. Known as the sanctuary movement, this term saw a revival in the most recent presidential election. According to the Washington Examiner, there are over 200 “sanctuary cities” across 32 U.S. states and in D.C.
On Nov. 17, 2016, President Adam Falk sent an email to the entire student body explaining that numerous petitions received from community members and activist groups across the College helped initiate this movement after the presidential election.
“The petitions vary in what they seek, but they are inspired by sanctuary cities, where local laws prevent police from asking about people’s immigration status and generally don’t use local resources to enforce federal immigration laws,” Falk said.
He elaborated, however, that the application of this concept to a private college is somewhat unclear, specifying that the College does not have the ability to provide this full protection.
On Nov. 18, 2016, the day after Falk sent his all-campus email, students gathered to protest his statement and called on administration to make the College a “sanctuary campus” in solidarity with other #SanctuaryCampus sit-ins and walk-outs taking place on college campuses across the country. Students demanded that the College vow as an institution to protect undocumented students and keep their legal status confidential.
After the 23 California State University campuses committed to being “sanctuary campuses,” students at private colleges across the nation began to protest and petition that their schools do the same, but few protests have succeeded in securing that change given how public and private colleges follow different protocol surrounding immigration status.
Students occupied Hopkins Hall, which hosts many offices of the administration, and voiced their personal concerns and stories about how immigration policies affect them as undocumented students, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students or as family members of immigrants.
Johnson later clarified that while the police department would not ignore federal laws, it would not be taking immigration information about members of the community that the federal government could use. “[The WPD] would always assist another law enforcement agency to the best of our ability, but on this specific topic, we would not have information to give as we do not ask, track or record immigration status,” Johnson said. He further specified that the WPD has not consulted with Falk or any other College administrators surrounding the topic of immigration or “sanctuary campuses.” “We work every day to maintain positive community relationships through Community Policing, but nothing specific regarding immigration at this time,” Johnson said.
Still, many students at the College and Williamstown community members are concerned about the protection of immigrants and undocumented students. Jaquelíne Serrano ’17, one of many organizers of the Occupy Baxter protest, feels that immigration structures directly impact them as a DACA student. Serrano explained that they communicated with Movimiento Cosecha, “an immigrant youth, decentralized organization spearheading the #SanctuaryCampus walk-outs/ sit-ins” nationally. Movimiento Cosecha’s “sanctuary campaigns aim to defend our communities, expose the repression, build rapid response teams and establish places of protection and resistance for the immigrant community.”
By bringing this movement to the College’s cam- pus, Serrano aimed to “generate student power among young people” and “bring highlight to the awareness that exists among students and to say ‘we are watching’ as power-yielding institutions like Williams remain quiet in times like these and continue to stand for legality, a construct that is built to bene t those in power.”
“Honestly, neither Chief Johnson’s statement nor his answers to [the] questions are at all surprising,” Serrano said. “It just confirms what black and brown folks have always known: oppressive institutions, including the police, are not meant to protect us.”
Serrano explained that the Chief’s “belief [in] and reliance [on] ‘community policing’ demonstrate a reformist approach, one that is shared among many that made that stance comfortable “When these institutions that purport to protect you and your community are actually oppressive, it leads us to commit to more radical actions and futures,” Serrano said. “In the end, that’s all most black and brown folks have, especially those that are undocumented.”
WPD released the letter in response to the concerns of residents. Photo: Janeth Rodriguez/Photo Editor