- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A bill introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly could thwart Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s pledge to protect city residents who are in the country illegally from being turned over to federal immigration agents for minor violations.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the legislation targeting so-called sanctuary cities would impede city police. He plans to work to defeat it.

“We are municipal police officers,” Pare said. “We don’t have the training or technical expertise in immigration law and so we should not be enforcing immigration law.”

The bill was introduced by a group of Democratic lawmakers who represent suburban towns surrounding Providence in the Democrat-controlled legislature. It would create a governmental duty to investigate immigration violations. New civil and criminal penalties could punish officials who don’t cooperate with federal law enforcement.

Elorza, a Democrat, announced in November he would continue a longstanding policy of refusing to hold people charged with civil infractions for federal immigration officials, despite vows by Republican President Donald Trump to withhold potentially millions of dollars in taxpayer money from cities around the country that resist his enforcement crackdown. Elorza’s office referred comments on the state legislation to Pare.

A similar statewide policy instructs Rhode Island State Police not to keep someone detained for federal immigration authorities unless they obtain a deportation order in court. It was enacted in 2014 through an executive order signed by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office has said there are no plans to rescind it.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors said state and city leaders should take Trump’s threats to cut funding more seriously.

“They can withhold anything they want,” said North Providence Democratic Rep. William O’Brien, noting that he voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “He is the president. It’s not that I like him being president, but I have to respect him.”

O’Brien is a Providence school truancy officer and former math teacher who said he is particularly concerned about a loss of federal education aid that helps school districts with a large number of students from low-income families.

“We’d have to shut down all our school programs, half of our school programs,” O’Brien said. “If you play a game like that, and lose that money, you would have to shut down the schools in Providence.”

Constitutional scholars have debated whether an “anti-commandeering” doctrine would limit Trump’s ability to punish states and cities by withholding funds. But for Pare, the public safety commissioner, the main concern is allowing police to do their job well. About 30 percent of Providence residents are immigrants.

“It has a drastic impact on the relationship we’ve built over the past several decades with our community and we should not, as local police officers, be seen as immigration officers,” he said. “We will always take action on those criminals that are here and immigration has put out a criminal warrant for.”

The bill’s main sponsor, North Providence Democratic Rep. Arthur Corvese, said his bill isn’t specifically aimed at Elorza. Corvese introduced similar legislation last year, but it was held for further study.

Corvese said his goal is for local officials to not “take it upon themselves to act contrary to federal law. I think there’s an order established by these federal laws and that order should be maintained.”

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