Photo: Michael Chesson.
On Monday, May 8, Michael Chesson came to the microphone at the annual Belmont Town Meeting to speak his mind on the contentious proposal to create a “Welcoming Town” for residents with questionable immigration status.
He finished to a standing ovation after expressing the heartfelt sentiment of many of his neighbors seeking to embrace those wanting to make the “Town of Homes” a place all can live without fear of apprehension.
The Whitcomb Street homeowner who served 35 years in the Navy – advancing from recruit to captain – said during his military tenure, he served with Americans of all races, genders and sexual orientation.
“We always came together as a team. Worked hard and played just as hard. We venerated the same flag as we pledged allegiance to tonight,” said the UMass-Boston instructor who wore a NAVY varsity jacket with patches from a lifetime of assignments.
“That flag is not a banner of exclusion; it is a proud symbol of enduring virtues and a reminder of us all of the sacrifice,” said the 29-year town resident.
“If Belmont becomes a “Welcoming Community,” I’ll wear that on my sleeve,” he said.
By the end of the night, Chesson joined 197 Town Meeting members voting 198-59 to declare their hometown as a welcoming Town,” voting nearly four to one to approve a non-binding article restating current Police Department practices of not asking the immigration status of a person or resident they encounter.
Belmont joined Arlington’s Town Meeting – which approved its “Welcoming Town” article Monday night – as the latest communities to pass measures reaffirming residents’ wishes to support all residents regardless of their national origin.
Belmont’s vote counters recent actions by bodies which either rejected both sanctuary-like legislation and welcoming designations – Hull (Mass) Town Meeting – or requiring state and municipal police to inquire a person’s legal status during routine stops as was approved in Texas.
The article was one of the most controversial non-budgetary articles in recent Town Meeting memory. Opponents of the measure paid for robocalls denouncing the article as wrongheaded and potentially a financial drain and distributed stickers stating “No on 10.” Article 10 supporters and those in opposition rallied outside Belmont High School with signs in hand before Monday’s meeting.
Inside the auditorium, Belmont Moderator Michael Widmer asked despite the “strong feelings on both sides” that “we air our differences in a respectful and dignified fashion.”After presenting her article to the members, Mahon thanked the Belmont Police command staff for helping to craft the article which was complete with “complicated issues and [its] input and assistance was critical.”
After presenting her article to the members – the complete article is at the bottom of the page – Mahon thanked the Belmont Police command staff for helping to craft the article which she noted does not make Belmont a “sanctuary city.”
“We at Town Meeting are often asked to weigh on matters which we do not have specific jurisdiction,” said Mahon.
“The goal of this resolution is to voice Town Meeting’s support for the continuation of the Belmont Police Department practices …, so residents feel safe approaching Belmont Police without fear they will be detained or questioned about their status,” she said.
The fear that Belmont Police will seek the status of any residents will likely prevent those individuals or families from reporting crimes such as domestic violence, which Mahon’s co-presenter Paul Roberts, Precinct 8, said: “makes us all less safe.”
“Belmont is a safe community in part due to the heroic effort of our police officers. But it is also safe because we work alongside our police to keep the community safe” which include native residents, green card holders “and, yes, undocumented residents,” said Mahon.
Mahon said the article reaffirms the values of a cohesive community “that welcomes and accepts without prejudice those of all races, religions, and nationalities.”
During the subsequent debate, many residents gave personal insight why the declaration was necessary for Town Meeting to pass.
Mark Carthy, Pct. 1, “and an immigrant,” said regardless of anti-bias laws, there is “discrimination out there” and resolutions such as the welcoming article “is to make sure people’s behaviors goes beyond the laws we have.”
Mike Crowley, Pct. 8, whose ancestors who arrived in America 350 years ago “were certainly illegal” said the diversity of national origin of residents and businesses just in his precinct is broad and varied. “I am not in the position of adjudicating what their immigration status are. I’m in the business of treating them as a neighbor.”
Marty Cohen, Pct. 3, said when he arrived in Belmont half a century ago, “there was a certain amount of antisemitism” but it has changed for the better so that the town is a welcoming community “and we should say that with pride unless we are too modest to say so.”
The proposal’s opponents expressed their concerns, focusing on the “slippery slope” which the article will lead to increasing demands on police procedures to impede federal immigration efforts.
Tomi Olson, Pct. 5, said the town is already a welcoming town as noted by numerous proclamations and statements by town official and committees. The article presumes that “the town and Belmont Police are … in need of being told how to be welcoming to immigrants.”
Olson noted many negative statements directed towards the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency remain in the article despite an attempt to include language from Belmont Police to “nullify” Mahon.
“Town officials with businesses and residents have told me that they fear to oppose this article because they fear retribution, being demonized and being called ugly names,” said Olson, who called the article “a Trojan horse” that will eventually lead to sanctuary city status.
Both Selectman Mark Paolillo and Belmont Police Chief McLaughlin reiterated the article would unalter current law enforcement practices.
It was Chesson, whose direct narrative captivated the 300 members and residents in the auditorium.
While admitting the non-binding measure is a symbol, a “feel good” measure “like my new puppies or the children on Whitcomb,” Chesson said Article 10 makes explicit statements on “who we are and what we believe. It lays down a marker; It proclaims community values.”
Belmont can not wall itself off from so-called high crime cities like Boston, Somerville or even Watertown. Defeating Article 10 will not make us safer, he said. Passing it will not mean immigrants will be flocking to Belmont; “they can’t afford it.”
Volunteering at a food pantry in Chelsea, he comes across “many good people in that immigrant community, just like those immigrants who worked on the farms in Belmont;” the town’s prosperity until the first part of the past century “relied on immigrant labor,” said Chesson.
“Town meeting members ancestors fought the Alien and Sedition Acts or struggled to find jobs with INNA [Irish Need Not Apply] signs everywhere, who resisted the Fugitive Slave Law or endured anti-Italian slurs, survived the Armenian genocide or the Nazi Holocaust. And went through two Red scares after two World Wars.”
“Like them, we should stand for what’s best, the good in all of us.” said Chesson, who received a standing ovation from a good portion of Town Meeting.
After the vote – he was surrounded by admirers in the school’s hallway – Chesson told the Belmontonian said while he is “basically a curmudgeon, I have a tremendous response for underdogs” such as people who will travel thousands of miles so that they can work hard and make a living.
“When frightened, desperate people are being persecuted or chased; I have to respond. Yes, they may have broken the law to come here, but a lot of rich people break the law on Wall Street and Washington. Why single out the desperate ones? We can do better than that.”
ARTICLE 10: WELCOMING TOWN DESIGNATION
MOVED: That the Town adopts the following resolution:
1. Whereas, Historically Belmont has welcomed immigrants from many regions around the world, including the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America; and
2. Whereas, Immigrants have enriched the fabric of this community, adding new life and great potential to Belmont; and
3. Whereas, Assumptions made about a person’s legal status in the United States that are based on the person’s religion, ethnicity, or national origin, and discrimination, harassment, or bullying of people based on those assumptions, have no place in our community.
4. Whereas, National policies that discriminate against immigrants because of religion or country of origin run counter to our values; and
5. Whereas, In some communities, local law enforcement agencies are used to collect and deliver immigration status data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”); and
6. Whereas, ICE may issue voluntary information or detainer requests that could subject individuals who are in local custody to prolonged detention; and
7. Whereas, It is believed in some communities that when local law enforcement officials indiscriminately comply with all ICE civil immigration information and detainer requests, including those that target non-criminal undocumented residents, public trust is eroded, immigrants are less likely to cooperate with local law enforcement and are less likely to report serious crimes, thus making the work of local law enforcement more difficult to address serious crimes; and
8. Whereas, The Belmont Police Department will continue its long-held practice of not asking any individual about immigration status when that individual is seeking help from the police or is stopped for a minor infraction, and will provide assistance and protection to any member of the public without regard to immigration status; and
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: 1) The Belmont Town Meeting hereby expresses our solidarity with displaced persons and migrants from around the world.
around the world. Motions for 2017 Belmont Annual Town Meeting Page 2 of 2
2) The Belmont Town meeting affirms its support for these Belmont Police Department practices:
(a) Belmont Police officers will not detain persons solely to investigate their immigration status;
(b) Belmont Police officers will not inquire into the immigration status of persons seeking help from the police unless the information is relevant to prosecuting the reported crime or for the person’s protection;
(c) The Belmont Police Department will not keep an index or list of persons suspected of being aliens or deportable aliens;
(d) The Belmont Police Department will not seek to have any officer receive a delegation of the powers of an immigration officer ;
(e) The Belmont Police Department will cooperate with federal, state, and local criminal and civil investigative agencies in the accomplishment of their lawful objectives by providing such information as the Police Department maintains;
(f) Upon the presentation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of a detainer and an administrative warrant for the detention of a person arrested by Belmont Police Department in the course of enforcing state and local laws and currently in custody, the Belmont Police Department will maintain custody of the person for sufficient time to bring to the attention of the court officials responsible for decisions upon bail. (The Belmont Police Department will continue this practice until such time as a court with authority over the Belmont Police Department finds the practice to be contrary to law.); and
(g) The Belmont Police Department will continue to investigate reports of hate crimes, criminal discrimination, and criminal harassment of persons based upon their religion, ethnicity, or national origin without regard to the person’s known or suspected unlawful status within the United States.
REPORTING: Anne Mahon, Precinct 4, Petitioner