Joe Curtatone to Donald Trump: Take Your Immigration Policy and Shove It

Your move, Mr. President.

joe curtatone donald trump sanctuary cities

Photograph by Jeff Brown

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has been egging on Donald Trump for months. He’s suggested that our president-elect’s hair looks like an atomic mushroom cloud and once compared him to a “drunk uncle.” But his differences with Trump extend beyond the man’s demeanor: Curtatone has also drawn a battle line when it comes to immigration policy. “I’m still going to be the mayor of a sanctuary city long after Donald Trump loses this election,” he declared over the summer. So as the hours slipped by on November 8 and the nation’s fate emerged, Curtatone found himself staring down the very real possibility of a long, ugly fight with the most powerful man in the world.

Throughout his campaign, Trump placed sanctuary cities—which for decades have shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation—high on his hit list, roundly excoriating their mayors for what he describes as providing a safe harbor to criminals. He has repeatedly pointed to the case of Kate Steinle, allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, as evidence that sanctuary cities are viper pits teeming with rapists and killers. Trump’s solution calls for yanking federal funding from all such havens across the country—including Somerville.

So far, Curtatone is playing the part of the Rebel Alliance to Trump’s Empire, and appears ready to go toe to toe with the new president. “We aren’t a rich community,” the mayor tells me, noting that one-third of the city is foreign born. “We’ll tighten our belt if we have to. We aren’t going to blink.”

At first glance, Trump would appear to have the upper hand. Immigration is a federal issue, not a local one, so Trump will have the opportunity to follow through on his threats to pull federal funding from projects helping cities such as Somerville. It should be noted that now is not a great time for Curtatone to risk millions in federal funding, what with the state’s costly Green Line Extension and plans for a sparkling new $256 million high school in the works. If Trump carries a penchant for revenge into the Oval Office, cutting the purse strings could spell disaster for Somerville.

But wait. For everyone who loves an underdog story, there is still hope for Curtatone. Despite what Trump and others assert, Curtatone says, the reason for Somerville’s sanctuary-city status isn’t to harbor violent criminals. Rather, the town’s Trust Act states that police officers will not detain a person solely for immigration matters, though they still can if a person is a felon or flagged on federal watch lists. The idea is to keep people from fearing law enforcement and encourage them to report crimes. “We’re talking about domestic-violence victims who are afraid to come forward,” says Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

In addition, Curtatone just might have the U.S. Constitution on his side. Mary Holper, who heads up the Immigration Clinic at Boston College Law School, explains that police powers are reserved for the state and local levels. “It’s not a federal government issue,” she says, meaning that because police officers aren’t immigration officers, Trump will have a hard time dictating procedure to the Somerville PD. Plus, the whole practice of holding someone for who knows how long just because Immigration and Customs Enforcement might one day want to pick them up runs into all sorts of Fourth Amendment issues.

It’s far too early, of course, to know how any of this will play out. Trump has already walked back several of his most prominent campaign promises, including throwing Hillary Clinton in prison and forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall. Still, Curtatone isn’t taking any chances, and he has his sanctuary-cities pitch for Trump polished and ready, should the two of them ever end up meeting in person: “I would ask him to open up his heart as well as his mind and his eyes, and to think prudently and thoroughly about any actions before he takes them and how any negative action will have a profound effect on our economy, our nation, and our democracy.”

While we’re not sure if the heartfelt approach will win Trump over, Curtatone’s message seems clear: It’s your move, Mr. President.