Durham mayoral challenger Thomas Stith's protracted attempt to rile up the electorate over the city's immigration policy foundered when not one citizen, Durham City Council member or administration employee came to his support in a Sept. 20 work session. Instead, a predominantly Latino throng amassed in protest, filling the seats and lining the walls, and wearing fluorescent green stickers proclaiming support for the current policy—which Stith supported when it was adopted in 2003.
The only two citizens to make public comments opposed Stith's proposal. And new Police Chief Jose Lopez defiantly defended his department's policies.
On Sept. 6, Councilman Stith, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Bill Bell, stirred up controversy when he unexpectedly called on the council to review a 2003 resolution blocking police officers from profiling immigrants, known as Resolution 9046. He says he was responding to a report that designated Durham a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants. Several days later, Stith sent automated phone calls to voters in an apparent attempt to stoke fears about illegal immigrants and compel citizens to attend a city council meeting in his support (see "Immigration robocalls raise ire in Durham"). But at the Thursday afternoon work session, Stith's supporters were nowhere in sight.
Still, the councilman argued the resolution is unclear on whether it allows officers to determine immigration status during the course of an investigation.
"In a criminal investigation, we should determine status," Stith said. "My concern was that there was a conflict. We had a policy that said we were not determining status."
At the work session, Stith cited the sanctuary city designation and two conflicting memos from the police department as reasons to clean up the resolution. In a Sept. 17 memo to City Manager Patrick Baker, Deputy Police Chief Ron Hodge urged the council to repeal the section of the resolution that prohibits officers from engaging in "activities designed to ascertain the immigration status of any person." Then the next day, chief Lopez wrote a memo to Baker supporting the resolution.
"Within 24 hours, there was confusion," Stith said. "Anyone else that looks at our policy was probably subject to the same confusion."
But after reviewing the resolution and police department policy, Lopez disagreed.
"The resolution's intent and the way it was written clearly indicates the need to understand status in an investigation," Lopez said, responding to Stith's question about the discrepancy between memos. "Knowing whether someone is a resident becomes paramount in assisting you in the investigation. It would be for that reason only."
"I think that our being a sanctuary city is what we can expect when we are forward-thinking," Lopez said. "That they would label us like this—maybe they aren't used to forward-thinkers like yourselves who bring forth such a resolution."
When Stith asked for council support to "bring a finer point to the resolution," no one responded and Bell closed discussion.