Saint Paul grapples with immigration issues in wake of Trump election

By Mike Kaszuba

Nine days after last November’s presidential election, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was preaching caution to his staff as emotions flared in the city and across the U.S. over Donald Trump’s controversial stance on immigration.

“I don’t think we need to be so confrontational to Trump.  It undercuts our credibility,” the DFL mayor wrote in a November 17 e-mail message to his chief of staff, Dana Bailey.  The exchange took place as Coleman was being pushed to comment publicly on the difference between the city’s thirteen-year-old “separation ordinance” and the more aggressive “sanctuary city” stance that some cities were adopting in the wake of the new Republican president’s immigration positions.

“We need to point out that we have a separation ordinance which directs police to not inquire about immigration status unless there is a legitimate law enforcement need to do so,” Coleman added.  “I think the problem I have with the tone of [a draft statement from the mayor’s office] is that it makes us sound, in fact, like a sanctuary city.”

Public Record Media, a St. Paul-based non-profit, reviewed more than 700 pages of documents that showed how the city wrestled internally with the suddenly-touchy issue as Trump vowed to substantially tighten immigration policies.  The records revealed that many St. Paul residents praised the mayor’s stance and urged him to do more to confront the Trump Administration. At the same time, city officials expressed concern about losing federal funds as the new administration threatened to withhold money from those cities that defied its new direction.

Defining “sanctuary city” 

From the day Trump was elected, St. Paul officials repeatedly tried to walk a fine line:  Vowing that city police officers would not act as immigration agents, but distancing St. Paul from other cities that placed more limits on cooperating with federal immigration efforts.

For example, San Francisco passed a “city and county of refuge,” or sanctuary, ordinance in 1989, which generally prohibited employees from using city resources to assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] agents in enforcing federal immigration law unless the assistance was required by federal or state law.

Four years ago, San Francisco went a step further:  It passed a new ordinance that limited when city police could give ICE agents advance notice of a person’s release from a local jail.  It also prohibited cooperation with ICE detainer requests.

Documents obtained by PRM showed that in St. Paul, officials conceded there were problems in getting the public to see how St. Paul was different.  In a statement drafted shortly after Trump’s election by Coleman’s policy director Nancy Homans, she suggested that the mayor explain that when it came to the term “sanctuary city” there was “no common understanding of what it means.”

Coleman also acknowledged the dilemma – and suggested that the city itself was partly to blame for confusing the public.  In a November 14 e-mail, the mayor told his staff that “we need to strongly reject that term Sanctuary City.”  Yet three days later, on November 17, Coleman added: “Kind of hard to get people to stop using [the] term ‘sanctuary city’ when we use it.”  Tonya Tennessen, the mayor’s then-communications director replied, “Good point.”

Four months later – with Trump now in office – Ashley Aram, the mayor’s then-senior communications advisor, was frustrated that many were still not seeing the distinction.  “Do we just continually keep telling people that since we comply with Federal law and since we are not a sanctuary city there is no effect on the city moving forward?” Aram wrote in a March 27 e-mail.  “I don’t even know what to do [anymore.]  I feel like we have repeatedly corrected this misinformation and no one seems to care,” she added.

Saint Paul joins legal challenge to Trump administration

However, at nearly the same time, the city took actions that may have added to the difficulty in drawing a difference.  Five days before Aram bemoaned the city’s dilemma in late March, St. Paul joined thirty-three other cities and counties across the U.S. – including Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis – in asking a federal judge in San Francisco to challenge Trump’s threat to withhold funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

The headline on the press release declared that “34 Cities & Counties Ask Federal Judge to Halt Trump Administration’s Threats Against ‘Sanctuary Jurisdictions.’”  Fourteen of the thirty-four jurisdictions were located in California, and the move was a legal attempt to support Santa Clara County – also located in California – in its lawsuit against the new administration.

Only lower in the release was the following caveat included: “The coalition [features] many cities and counties who do not consider themselves to be “sanctuaries’, but who nevertheless agree [Trump’s]  Executive Order is unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Immigration headlines generate calls to mayor’s office 

Back in St. Paul, mostly-supportive calls rolled into the mayor’s office.

Coleman was praised by one constituent who stated, “how proud I am to live in a state that has leaders like you.”  Others, though, were critical.  One constituent called to remind the mayor he was “not above the law,” and another said they were “appalled” that Coleman “believes it is right to support people from countries governed by Sharia (Islamic based) law.”  Still another constituent was “upset” that an American flag at Como Park was flying at half-mast after Trump was elected and suspected it was “because of [the] election results.”

The mayor’s office was also hearing from many others, including the Minnesota Council of Churches, which urged compassion toward immigrants.  The organization released a list of suggestions that included a plea to “get friends together and plan to do something nice for a local mosque.”

As the issue heated up, the mayor also met with Gerardo Guerrero, the Mexican Consul General based in St. Paul.  A mayoral briefing paper prepared in advance of the meeting noted that roughly 43,000 people – half of the “unauthorized population” in Minnesota – were from Mexico.

Minneapolis mayor issues statement

There were other pressures on Coleman to be more aggressive – some of which came, at least indirectly, from the actions being taken by his counterpart in Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Just four days after Trump’s election, the Minneapolis mayor released a statement that was harshly critical of the president-elect.  Hodges stated that she would continue “to stand by immigrants in Minneapolis” and that Minneapolis police “will not do the work of the Federal government and ICE” – regardless of threats to federal funding.

“In his quest to scapegoat immigrants, Donald Trump has threatened cities’ Federal funding if we do not change this practice.  I repeat:  I will continue to stand by and fight for immigrants in Minneapolis regardless of President-elect Trump’s threats,” the Minneapolis mayor said.

The Minneapolis mayor ended her statement by pointing to an existing city ordinance which stated that “public safety officials shall not undertake any law enforcement action for the purpose of detecting the presence of undocumented persons, or to verify immigration status, including but not limited to questioning any person or persons about their immigration status.”

Two days after Hodges’ statement, Amy Brendmoen, a St. Paul City Council member, forwarded Hodges’ comments in an e-mail to Coleman and asked, “is the Mayor planning to make this sort of statement for St. Paul?”  Coleman released his own statement, describing the city’s “separation ordinance”, a week later.

City e-mails showed that Coleman had other issues he was hoping to push.  On November 12, a copy of Hodges’ immigration statement was circulated to the mayor by e-mail.  Coleman replied to the message and copied his top staff, writing, “I’d like to take [the] lead on climate change issues.”  Coleman would announce in December that he was a candidate to be Minnesota’s next governor.

City concerns about threats to funding

Inside St. Paul’s city hall, there were concerns about Trump’s threat to deny federal money to cities and counties opposing him on immigration.

Just days after Trump took office in January, St. Paul officials scrambled when the president issued an executive order stating that “sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal.  [These] jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

The executive order added that “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply” with federal law “are not eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes” by the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security.

Trump’s executive order focused, among other things, on a section of the U.S. Code which states that local governments “may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

In July, the U.S. Justice Department outlined new grant conditions to keep federal money from flowing to so-called “sanctuary cities.”  It announced that local governments applying for a key Justice Department funding program – the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant –would have to first allow federal immigration officials access to local jails and prisons, and also give federal officials a 48-hour notice before an illegal immigrant wanted by federal authorities was released.

Minnesota received $2.7 million in money from the program in 2016.

After Trump’s executive order in January, top officials at the St. Paul Public Housing Authority immediately asked Coleman to attend a meeting on “possible impact of federal funding cuts” on the agency.  Jon Gutzmann, the agency’s executive director, told a newspaper reporter that “what the city does should not affect [public housing] funding.”  A preliminary tally, according to documents, showed that the city’s public housing agency received $58.8 million in federal rent assistance.

A city e-mail from January stated that $12.8 million in federal funding was included in the city’s $690 million operating budget for 2017.  In addition, a March 28 e-mail from Todd Hurley, the city’s financial services director, showed that the city’s 2015 federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant from the Department of Justice totaled $1.875 million, and still had a balance of $1.8 million.

City officials also began closely watching a new weekly list, released by the federal government, that began naming cities and counties that the Trump Administration saw as defying its policies on immigration.  “The City of St. Paul or Ramsey County were not named as being out of compliance,” a lobbying firm informed the city in April after the latest list was released.

At the same time, the mayor’s office was also being told it was unclear what might actually happen.

In January the state’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told local government officials in Minnesota that an initial analysis by the National Governor’s Association suggested that cities that “willfully refuse” to comply with federal law on immigration “are not eligible” to receive federal grants in many instances.

Lockridge Grindal Nauen, a political lobbying firm with offices in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., wrote in late March that there was still uncertainty on this point, according to city records obtained by PRM.

“It’s not clear that the Justice Department’s policy will actually take money away from cities,” the firm stated in a newsletter.  “Sanctuary cities often adopt rules that prohibit their law enforcement officers from asking people about their immigration status. Because that information isn’t collected, it isn’t available to share with the Federal Government.”

Coleman responds to events

Records obtained by PRM reveal that as events unfolded, Coleman appeared to become emboldened.

When Trump issued his executive order on Jan. 25, Coleman sent an e-mail to an aide concerning the president’s action, and asked “other than saying they are going to deputize local law enforcement to be immigration officers, what BS does it spew?”

On the same day Aram, the mayor’s then-senior communications advisor, began drafting a statement from the city in response to Trump’s executive order.  Records show that Coleman used the opportunity to take aim at Trump – at least in jest — on another hot-button issue – the president’s claim that widespread voter fraud had taken place in the just-completed election.

“I would add language about imaginary voter fraud,” he wrote.

In early March, Coleman was again pressed to act.  A Catholic priest, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, informed the mayor’s office that ICE agents had two days before “set up a net” around a local daycare  and “grabbed enough undocumented people to fill two vans.”  The priest called the event “news of a hateful act of spiteful law enforcement”, and asked the mayor’s office to help publicize the episode.

Replied the mayor: “So awful.  I’m up for whatever.”

And in late March when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a key player in the immigration initiative, talked of withholding federal money from sanctuary cities, Coleman instructed his staff that the city’s response should make it clear that St. Paul would “fight like hell on behalf of all residents.”

Bailey, the mayor’s chief of staff, responded: “We should use those words exactly.”

Documents obtained by PRM indicate that the mayor’s gubernatorial aspirations were also now part of the equation.

When Minnesota Public Radio asked Coleman to appear on a show concerning immigration with the mayor of Worthington, Minnesota, Coleman at first wanted to know more about the southwest Minnesota mayor.  “Is he an anti-separation ordinance guy [?]  I don’t mind if it gets me some play in South Western Mn,” Coleman wrote in a December e-mail just days before he announced his gubernatorial campaign.

For the mayor’s office, the questions continued.

“Are you really saying that you are not a sanctuary city?  That’s not the impression I had,” Amy Forliti, an Associated Press reporter, wrote in a late March e-mail message.

Replied Ben Petok, a top aide to Coleman: “On background, we are a ‘separation city’ and not a ‘sanctuary city’.  Whatever you call it, we comply with federal law.”