Community members propose sanctuary town law

Last Wednesday, Benjamin Williams ’17.5 announced the Williamstown Immigrant Trust Act in an email sent to the entire student body. The ordinance, spearheaded by Professor of Political Science James Mahon of the Williamstown Democratic Town Committee, former state representative Sherwood Guernsey and Williams, aims to formalize current town practices by formally declaring Williamstown a sanctuary town.

The most recent draft of the ordinance is under review with Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 and other members of the town government. Williams hopes that community members will vote on the drafted legislation at the Williamstown town meeting that will take place this coming May.

In his email, Williams listed the practices that the ordinance will formalize, including how Williamstown Police Department (WPD) officers will not participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law and will not give sensitive personal information to federal immigration officers without a judicial warrant. If passed, the ordinance would also prohibit town officers from collecting any immigration information or creating any sort of registry based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity or national origin.

Williams emphasized that the ordinance simply codifies already existing procedures into law. “The practical effect of this ordinance will be to turn policies into law, ensuring that federal action against undocumented members of our community is as expensive and difficult as possible,” Williams said in the email.

The procedural hurdles that would be associated with changing a law are also crucial. “The goal is to give existing town policy the force of law, so that no matter how much federal pressure comes down, we cannot change our mind about this without another town meeting and another vote,” Williams said in an interview with the Record.

“We are saying that it is the job of the federal government to enforce its own immigration law. And if we want to participate in that, we are allowed to, but we cannot be required to. This says that we aren’t going to,” Williams said.

Williams started working on the proposed legislation immediately following the presidential election in November. “Right after the election, I went to a meeting of the Williams Democrats and told them that I thought we could pass a statuary ordinance for Williamstown that could have real, concrete effects,” Williams said.

In addition, he attended and voiced support for an ordinance at a Williamstown Democratic Town Committee meeting in November. Mahon and Guernsey joined the project soon after.

The proposed ordinance is based on a template that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman developed as a model for towns and cities to follow as part of the sanctuary movement. Williams, Mahon and Guernsey started working on their own draft ordinance after the election but later adopted most of Schneiderman’s language.

Williams, Mahon and Guernsey all consulted and worked with the National Immigration Project, the Latinx Caucus of the College Democrats of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police. Williams also referenced support from the Coalition for Immigrant Student Advancement in his email.

Most of the drafted legislation focuses on the WPD; however, if the law officially passes this May, all town officers, regardless of their department or affiliation, would be obligated to follow the law. “The police department will have to make the call to tell federal authorities that we will not cooperate with you, unless [they] present a warrant signed by a judge,” Williams said.

Williams believes that the ordinance will not attract undesired attention to Williamstown or the College. “Sanctuary campuses are rare, and we know that they have attracted national media attention. So there is a real risk that by adding to College to that list of campuses, we would be soliciting the type of attention we want to avoid,” Williams said. “On the other hand, a great number of the nation’s cities are already sanctuary cities, so there is no reason to believe that Williamstown passing an ordinance of this kind will put us on anybody’s radar.”

The ordinance follows multiple demonstrations of support for undocumented members of the community within the College since the presential election, including a student-led walkout in November, where hundreds of students gathered in front of Hopkins Hall, and a letter signed by 48 college and university presidents, including Adam Falk, urging the Trump administration to rescind the controversial immigration executive order.

Assuming that Hoch approves the drafted ordinance, Williams plans to organize a grassroots campaign to garner support before the vote in May. Trump received 13.6 percent of votes in Williamstown, and because of this result, organizers are optimistic community members will support the sanctuary ordinance.

  • Augustine25

    I ran against Sherwood Guernsey back in the late 1980s while I was a professor at Williams College. I’m not surprised to see Sherwood Guernsey leading an effort which aligns with the interests of the national Democrat party and yet would be detrimental to the residents of Williamstown.