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Columbia pledges continued cooperation with ICE

In this image from online video, Columbia Borough Council meets at Borough Hall on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (Source: Columbia Borough)

COLUMBIA — Pitching the measure as a rebuke to Lancaster city enacting a “Welcoming City” ordinance, Columbia Borough Council on Tuesday passed a resolution pledging full cooperation with any and all federal immigration enforcement.

The vote was 6-0; Councilwoman Joanne Price was absent.

Columbia has been cooperating with Immigration & Customs Enforcement all along, city officials and Chief Jack Brommer said, so the resolution doesn’t materially alter existing practice. By making an explicit public declaration, however, the borough can signal to its citizens that it is paying attention and that “this is where we stand,” Council President Heather Zink said.

Lancaster City Council’s action, taken in February, was likewise a codification of already existing policy. For some time, the city has barred elected officials and employees, including police, from asking about immigration status in almost all instances, unless obliged by law or court order.

“I believe that codifying that long-standing policy into an ordinance makes our city a better place because residents will not be afraid to report crimes or make other requests to the city government,” Lancaster City Council President Amanda Bakay said.

She expressed disappointment at Columbia’s resolution and contended it is based on misinformation about Lancaster’s ordinance, “which is plentiful.”

Columbia’s resolution (PDF) calls out Lancaster’s ordinance, saying it effectively made Lancaster a sanctuary city, and that such cities have struggled with increases in migrant crimes and the burden of providing social services.

“I see some of these cities that have done this,” Borough Mayor Leo Lutz said Tuesday. “They’re broke, asking for help … crime is rampant.”

Immigration and border security are among the most controversial issues in U.S. politics, with Republicans accusing the Biden administration of abetting a crisis and Democrats accusing Republicans of refusing reasonable compromises to solve it. Red states have bussed migrants by the thousands to sanctuary cities.

Advocates say sanctuary cities do not experience higher crime; while opponents counter that noncitizens account for a vastly disproportionate number of federal criminal arrests.

Lancaster’s and Columbia’s legislatures reflect that partisan divide on a local level: Lancaster’s council is 100% Democratic, Columbia’s is 100% Republican.

Lutz and council members said they are worried that Lancaster’s policy will have spillover effects in Columbia, as immigrants initially attracted to a “sanctuary city” relocate to the borough to take advantage of lower housing costs.

“Lancaster city can’t handle it,” Lutz said at the May 5 workshop where the issue was first discussed. “… They’re going to spread out somewhere.”

Council Vice President Eric Kauffman, who had brought up the issue, said at the workshop that illegal immigrants aren’t welcome in Columbia.

Lutz said he’s worried about migrants’ immunization rates and their potential to bring disease into the U.S.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Councilwoman Barbara Fisher read a prepared statement listing recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics on border enforcement. In fiscal 2023 the agency documented 2.47 million encounters with immigrants, the arrest of 35,433 aliens with outstanding warrants or convictions and the seizure of 27,293 pounds of fentanyl.

Sanctuary laws put innocent people at risk, she said. The law has to be enforced, and there are provisions for well-intentioned would-be immigrants to stay: “They just need to follow the procedures for citizenship.”

Mayor Lutz and Chief Brommer emphasized that Columbia police have no authority nor the intent to engage in proactive immigration enforcement. As Lutz put it, “our officers cannot just walk up to someone and demand to see their identification.”

They do have authority if an individual is detained on suspicion of a crime or traffic violation or on an outstanding warrant. In those instances, Brommer said, if there is evidence of undocumented status, a referral to ICE would be made.

“It does not happen often,” he said.

In an interview with One United Lancaster, Brommer acknowledged that “any time you have individuals who are new to a community,” there may be apprehension about interacting with law enforcement.

The Columbia Police Department has numerous ongoing outreach efforts to build rapport with the community and assuage such concerns, he said.