Before Tuesday morning’s city council meeting, flanked by members of the clergy and local immigration advocates, Mayor William Bell announced Birmingham’s commitment to becoming a “Welcoming City,” noting that vestiges of the long-beleaguered HB 56 restrict Alabama cities from becoming a sanctuary jurisdiction.
But then, during the meeting, the city council took it a step further.
After a long discussion, the Birmingham City Council approved a resolution designating Birmingham as a sanctuary city — in defiance of an executive order issued a few days ago by President Donald Trump. The designation of a sanctuary city, some worry, could potentially be at odds with state law. Nevertheless, the council was resolute, approving Bell’s measure with a unanimous vote while “tweaking” the designation from “welcoming” to “sanctuary” city.
“We want to make sure people know we are a sanctuary city. Birmingham stands with immigrants,” Council President Johnathan Austin said.
It could be an issue of semantics, Austin said, echoing Bell’s optimism that “there is nothing in the resolution that will put us in jeopardy of losing federal funding.”
Freddy Rubio, the attorney representing the council, said he reviewed the resolution and found that there are no measures in it that would leave the city government open to litigation — despite the fact that, according to the executive order Trump issued on January 25, “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”
The mayor, who was not present during the council vote, differed in his understanding of Birmingham’s legal ability to declare itself a sanctuary. But he shared the same view as the council that Trump’s executive actions against immigration are incorrect.
“When I was a kid I used to read Superman comic books. There was one [setting] called Bizarro World where everything was tipped upside down,” Bell said before the meeting, referring to Trump’s crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions throughout the country. “I think that’s where we’re at now.
“The president is the president, but I think he’s misguided and does not understand really what the Constitution is all about and the federal protections that should be in place for all citizens and all residents,” Bell said. “Anyone who comes to these borders should be afforded those same opportunities.”
Asked by a reporter if he is at odds with Trump’s stance on immigration, Bell responded quickly, “Oh, absolutely.”
Currently there are 38 major cities across the nation, now including Birmingham, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago, that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. Typically, what this means is local municipalities will decline to detain arrestees based on their immigration status alone. Last week, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, of Miami-Dade County, Florida — which had been considered a sanctuary for immigrants — agreed to comply with Trump’s executive order, citing a loss in $350 million of annual federal funding as factoring into his decision.
According to the Washington Post, “Before Thursday, Miami-Dade was considered one of these de facto “sanctuary” communities. The county’s policy was to only hold detainees if federal immigration officials agreed to reimburse the county for the detention costs — a condition set in a 2013 resolution. This practice put the county on a list of sanctuary cities in a Department of Justice report in May, prompting county officials to push back against the label.”
While the definition of a sanctuary city can vary, Bell said that Birmingham’s ability to distinguish itself as such is hamstrung by portions of HB 56 that prohibit cities without home rule, such as Birmingham, from doing so. In spite of this, Bell said his goal is to defeat any actions that treat individuals as “less than human,” and that Birmingham will continue to stand up for human rights, not “be an enforcement arm of the federal government.”
Bell argued that the under the 1901 Alabama Constitution, there are two sections that allow Birmingham to distinguish itself as a “Welcoming City” for immigrants seeking legal standing. Section 30 reads, “That immigration shall be encouraged; emigration shall not be prohibited, and no citizen shall be exiled.”
According to Bell, the city’s legal department interpreted this, along with Section 34, which reads, “Foreigners who are, or may hereafter become, bona fide residents of this state, shall enjoy the same rights in respect to the possession, enjoyment, and inheritance of property, as native born citizens,” as being in line with the law enforcement actions his administration will implement moving forward, specifically as it pertains to immigrants in Birmingham.
The Birmingham Police Department will not “stop and frisk,” nor will they raid homes of immigrant families based solely on their citizenship status, Bell explained as he vowed to “protect citizens from enemies, whether foreign or domestic, that violate the laws of our community.”
Any action by the federal government, Bell explained, that would seek to reduce federal funding to the city based on the recent designation would be unlawful. “This does not violate, per se, the executive order. They would have to show us in some way, shape, or form what we’re doing is wrong,” Bell said.
Several dozen speakers showed up to voice their support of the actions taken by Bell’s office. But some felt he didn’t go far enough. Cesar Mata, a Birmingham resident who sits on the board of Adelante Alabama, an advocacy group for immigrants, explained to the city council how he has seen families “ripped apart” by routine traffic stops that led to deportations. Others called for limited interaction and data sharing with federal authorities and said that the designation of a “Welcoming City” was not enough, labeling the action as “lukewarm.”
After the comments, the council publicly consulted with the law department before deciding against entering closed executive session to discuss the potential ramifications of making Birmingham a sanctuary city. The vote was 4-2; Austin, Steven Hoyt, Jay Roberson, and Marcus Lundy voted against the executive session, with Valerie Abbott and Kim Rafferty voting to discuss the matters behind closed doors.
The council made the unanimous decision to raise the designation to “sanctuary city” in full view of the public.
As congressional leaders consider the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general on Tuesday, Bell said he hopes his working relationship with Sessions, who would be tasked with enforcing Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities and other immigration orders, will allow progress to be made on issues surrounding civil and human rights.
This is a developing story. More information will be added when it becomes available.