This is a letter to the editor by Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles. To submit letters, emails Managing Editor Kelsey O’Connor at

In light of recent local activity in connection with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) there are renewed questions about the County’s status as a sanctuary jurisdiction. What exactly is our sanctuary status and what protections for immigrants does it actually afford?

When local law enforcement takes on the role of federal immigration law enforcement it can create mistrust from local residents, reduce needed cooperation in investigations that promote public safety (e.g. domestic violence, drug-related crimes), and drains limited local resources. In February 2017, the Tompkins County Legislature stood in opposition to the current administration’s assault on the U.S. immigrant community by passing the Public Safety for All resolution.

The county policy recognizes the jurisdiction of immigration law enforcement as a federal responsibility. To the extent possible under federal law, our policy limits local government personnel from performing federal government duties. For example, local officers cannot stop or arrest someone solely because of an immigration violation; a position that was recently affirmed by a New York Appellate Court in Francis v. DeMarco. Local county personnel cannot give federal immigration agents access to County facilities or resources to question someone in local custody, or transfer someone to ICE custody without a judicial warrant. Though we cannot prohibit local county personnel from disclosing someone’s immigration status to ICE without violating a federal statute, we do prohibit officers in most circumstances from asking about someone’s immigration status in the first place.  

As the recent arrest, detention, and ICE transfer incident in the Village of Lansing makes clear, however, the policy is only as good as county employees’ awareness and understanding of the policy. To avoid repetition of this event, following the arrest Sheriff Osborne adopted an internal policy that closely aligns with the language of the County resolution. The Sheriff also invited the Director of Immigration Legal Policy of the New York Immigration Coalition who recently conducted extensive officer training. This is a welcomed response from the sheriff’s office.

Even when properly enforced, it is critical to understand that the county’s sanctuary policy is not a blanket shield against federal immigration enforcement that is carried out by federal agents. As a local government, we do not have authority to stop ICE from investigating violations of federal immigration law in Tompkins County.

Understandably many of us feel helpless in the face of the current federal administration’s stance on immigrants in our community. There are however important initiatives that we can support to improve the safety and quality of life of our immigrant neighbors.

Immigrants, whether documented or not, are the most vulnerable when they are prevented from fully integrating into a community. Many immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, live segregated from the larger community and sometimes in crowded housing with other immigrants. They are often isolated by a lack of access to private and public transportation and limited job opportunities. Often immigrants work in jobs where immigrant workers predominate and are thus further segregated from the larger community. Immigrants are frequently isolated due to limited English language proficiency as well. These circumstances leave immigrants vulnerable to ICE scrutiny. Community support to foster integration both increases quality of life for our immigrant neighbors and decreases their vulnerability.  

This week, Tompkins County Legislature passed a resolution urging New York State to pass the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act (A03675/S01747) to allow the issuance of driver’s license to New York State residents regardless of immigration status. We should not criminalize everyday activity like travel to work, doctors appointments, and schools, and worship that don’t pose a threat. In contrast, issuance of these standard licenses would “improve public safety by ensuring drivers are properly licensed and educated on New York state traffic laws. As a result more cars will be properly insured, licensed and inspected.” This State law would also enable immigrants to engage more completely with the local economy.    

Catholic Charities in collaboration with Tompkins Learning Partners has recently been approved by New York State’s Office for New Americans to be an Office of New Americans Opportunity Center. Through this center, Catholic Charities will have increased capacity to help immigrants obtain naturalization and citizenship, provide workshops on federal immigration law and policy, and schedule monthly seminars where immigrants can access free legal consultation from an immigration attorney.  

Although not an exhaustive list, several community groups are providing general support and “know your rights” campaigns and information including the Cornell Law School and the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition (TCIRC). In 2016, the TCIRC also launched a Rapid Response Network and Hotline for Immigrants (607-358-5119) to inform the community when ICE arrives, document incidences pertaining to ICE, and provide support to the immigrant community.  

Both education and childcare are critical for successful integration. One program that community members can support is the Global Roots Play School opened by Ithaca Welcomes Refugees designed to, “to provide educational and social opportunities for refugee and immigrant children and families in our community.”

Although not an all-inclusive list of community support, these services and resources can serve as a starting point to channel our concern for our immigrant neighbors and create a safer welcome space for all peoples to thrive irrespective of immigration status.

Anna Kelles

Ithaca, NY

Featured photo: File photo of rally supporting immigrants on the Ithaca Commons by Alyvia Covert/ The Ithaca Voice