Michigan House Republicans have advanced a pair of bills blocking local units of government from adopting “sanctuary” policies for undocumented immigrants, although critics say the bills could interfere with local law enforcement.
Introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, House Bills 4083 and 4090 cleared a House committee on April 9 and moved closer to a full House vote. Similar legislation has been introduced in prior sessions, but LaFave’s bills come as a high-profile incident plays out involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Kent County Sheriff’s Office.
As well, the debate over the proposed legislation is taking place against the backdrop of a growing farm worker shortage that’s posed fundamental challenges for West Michigan’s agricultural industry, as MiBiz previously reported. Growers facing a dearth of migrant labor have turned to more costly federal visa programs to access seasonal workers to harvest a range of crops, including blueberries, apples and cherries. However, they describe the current process as merely an attempt to patch a broken system.
A shift for Kent County
Late last year, the county turned over Marine veteran and U.S. citizen Jilmar Ramos-Gomez to ICE, who detained him in a Calhoun County facility for three days before officials realized he is a U.S. citizen. The incident led Kent County to amend its detention policy for ICE by requiring a signed warrant to hold residents. Previously, the county voluntarily held detainees for ICE, and received compensation for it.
The incident started on Thanksgiving weekend last year when a GRPD captain saw Ramos-Gomez on TV and alerted ICE about his potential undocumented status. Ramos-Gomez was born in Grand Rapids.
In the May issue of MiBiz sister publication Revue, immigration attorneys and advocates said they worry that the incident will discourage undocumented residents from reporting serious crimes to law enforcement. That’s because the GRPD official who notified ICE — Capt. Curt VanderKooi — was the department’s visa certifier who helped people with undocumented status apply for legal status if they assisted law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of a serious crime.
For Kent County, the policy shift also led to a public dispute between the Sheriff’s Office and ICE, which claimed in March the county released multiple undocumented residents. LaFave’s bill appears to target the county’s activity, even though Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids have never claimed they are “sanctuary” municipalities.
State Rep. Alex Garza, D-Taylor, said the bills are the latest attempt by state Republicans to preempt local authority and appear to be legislation “in search of a problem.” Garza is the chairperson of the Latino Legislative Caucus.
“There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all model on immigration policies,” Garza said. The bills “force their hand to do certain things and really deter folks from doing their job the right way. Overall, the bills are quite anti-local law enforcement.”
Garza added that the bills “pander to a certain base of folks who think it might protect them, but it discourages folks who might not have legal status to report to law enforcement.”
LaFave’s bills are now before the House Ways and Means Committee. HB 4083 is also sponsored by Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township. Even if they clear the Republican-held House and Senate, it’s uncertain whether Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would support such a policy. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the bills.
Law enforcement concerns
LaFave has reportedly said he doesn’t want to mandate that local police enforce federal immigration laws, but he does want to avoid situations in which officers face political retribution for doing so.
The bills have raised concerns by county sheriffs across the state.
“It is my belief that the participation in federal immigration enforcement by local police agencies does tremendous damage to that agencies [sic] relationship with the community they are sworn to serve,” Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton wrote in written testimony opposing the bills. Clayton said he is “troubled by the likely impact on local communities” if the bills are passed.
He also notes that the International Association of Chiefs of Police has opposed initiatives that mandate local and state police agencies to help enforce federal immigration law.
“I am concerned that legislation like this is a solution in search of a problem,” Clayton wrote.
Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young expressed similar concerns over the bills, adding that they “oversimplify” the immigration issue and what local police deal with on a daily basis.
“I think the political environment at large tries to oversimplify the issues going on,” LaJoye-Young said. “As a community, we do have to understand law enforcement decisions can’t be made based on what the political fallout will be one way or the other.
“Specifically, Kent County is not a sanctuary county. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a community that is accepting and welcoming to our immigrant population. The difference between those two is a delicate balance. I don’t think that can be managed in 250 words in a law.”
Kimberly Clarke, partner at Grand Rapids-based Varnum LLP who specializes in immigration law, said the debate over sanctuary communities is often a response to a spike in federal immigration enforcement.
“There’s no legal basis for it,” Clarke said. “It’s just that cities try and enact this and protect the enforcement of laws in the community, but the federal government overrides that. Despite this debate back and forth, I don’t recall seeing a specific action where a city is taking a stand and keeping out federal officers. It’s on more of a rhetoric level. This legislation is one more step in that direction.”
Licenses for all?
Meanwhile, immigration activists have launched a statewide campaign for a “licenses for all” policy that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a state-issued driver’s license. Licenses for all is a top priority for the immigration advocacy group Movimiento Cosecha GR.
Prior to 2008, Michigan lacked a requirement that someone applying for a driver’s license needed a specific immigration or citizenship status. A 2007 opinion from Attorney General Mike Cox “had the immediate effect of denying licenses to all people who are undocumented,” according to the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Democratic-backed bills in 2017 that would have helped undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses stalled in committee.
“We think that if people who are undocumented just had a license, it would eliminate a big chunk of people they would have to stop, search and send to jail for not having a license,” said Sergio Cira-Reyes, director of community engagement for the Urban Core Collective in Grand Rapids and an active member of Movimiento Cosecha. “We think it would decrease the number of people who have negative interactions with police and would improve relationships between GRPD and the Latino community.”
Advocates say that not only does driving without a license increase the likelihood of immigrants being profiled or detained by ICE, but also it’s a significant barrier to seeking employment. This is especially true among migrant workers in Michigan’s agriculture industry.
However, most states no longer have license for all policies, Clarke said. While it might be in the state’s best interest for the undocumented community to have driver’s licenses — including for car insurance and employment purposes — state programs also must comply with federal law.
Given the Trump administration’s hard-line policies on immigration, “you’re probably going to leave a bunch of money on the table as a state,” Clarke said.
At Kent County, LaJoye-Young said the state’s previous policy caused problems for local law enforcement in identifying residents and even led to identity theft and fraud.
“With two or three pieces of paper, someone could create an identification for themselves,” she said. “We found we were releasing people with long felony histories and doing dangerous things. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying driver’s licenses for all.”
She added that an international driver’s license is still a valid license to drive in Michigan.
Any discussion about providing licenses for undocumented residents would need to navigate these differences between state and federal law, Clarke said.
“It’s not that simple” to offer licenses to all residents, she said.
An issue for ag
Clarke says Michigan’s agriculture industry also has shifted to use the federal H2A visa program more often as a way to promote legal working status on farms, although it’s a “difficult and expensive process” for farm owners. Still, the number of H2A work visas in Michigan have “gone up exponentially.”
“It has helped them combat the hardships that would be coming from increased deportation,” Clarke said.
While Garza isn’t aware of a formal licenses for all proposal in the state Legislature, he believes the concept has bipartisan support.
“There are many in the farming industry who rely on labor from folks who aren’t able to get a driver’s license,” Garza said. “We have a (worker) shortage in our farming industry. Not being able to drive — we need to find solutions for that. It’s a conversation I’m willing to have.”