Greensboro City Council concerned and confused about ICE-related grant
Many unsure what they voted for on Dec. 17, 2019
“There was no scenario where I would have voted for the City of Greensboro to have participated with ICE,” said At-Large representative Michelle Kennedy during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Greensboro City Council. “That, in my opinion, is the most ethically bankrupt federal agency that exists today.”
The council spent 30 minutes of their first meeting of 2020 debating what they’d actually voted on at the last meeting of 2019. The issue arose from a question asked by Billy Belcher of the Working-Class and Homeless Organizing Alliance during the public comments section of the meeting.
Belcher stated that, at its previous meeting on Dec. 17, 2019, “the council held a vote regarding the Justice Department’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, the JAG Award.” He then asked, “Am I correct in understanding that your vote last month was to accept the grant?”
“Correct,” said Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, conducting the meeting in the absence of Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “Unfortunately,” District 1’s Sharon Hightower added.
“It is indeed unfortunate,” said Belcher, calling the Immigration and Customs Enforcement an agency “that puts increasing numbers of people into concentration camps with conditions so inhumane, it amounts to torture, and from which hundreds of women and children disappear, never to be seen again.”
Belcher stated that documents linked to the online agenda of the Dec. 17, 2019, meeting “mention your enforced agreement with ICE nine different times,” and that it “also requires you to hold a public hearing on it.”
Belcher regularly criticizes the council at over matters involving homelessness and accusations of police brutality. On Tuesday, multiple council members responded to Belcher’s concerns, with Kennedy and Hightower expressing particular dismay at the prospect of cooperating with ICE.
District 5’s Tammi Thurm said she’d had a lengthy discussion with assistant city manager Trey Davis as to whether or not accepting the grant would cause Greensboro “to abide by ICE and support ICE in our community.” She then asked Davis to share what he’d told her.
“The document obviously contains information about local law enforcement, receiving funds and the agreement to partner with Federal agencies,” Davis said, “and that does include ICE. However, it is not the practice of GPD to adhere to the collection of immigration information.”
At-Large representative Marikay Abuzuaiter stated that she works very closely with Greensboro’s international community. “They were very concerned when this came out, and I immediately asked assistant city manager Davis to research and see what would be done, so we were very aware of what was in the document, and also that the GPD does not collect immigration status, so, therefore, there would be nothing to turn over. Our GPD has been very, very supportive of the Faith Action ID card, which assists our immigrants, and none of that information is collected by the GPD is any form or fashion. So, I just wanted to make it clear that we absolutely studied this before it went to a vote.”
What was not clear is what the council had actually voted on at that previous meeting. Was the vote to hold the required public hearing at some point in the future? Or was the Dec. 17, 2019, vote the actual hearing, even though there was no public discussion?
Immediately following the Dec. 17 meeting, Mayor Vaughan stated that “the vote was the public hearing.” Subsequent discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting indicated that Mayor Pro Tem Johnson’s response to Belcher was in error and that the city had not actually accepted the grant yet.
Hightower said that she’d been under the impression that the Dec. 17 vote was to have a public hearing, not that the vote was itself the hearing. “I would not participate in anything that would put our immigrant community in jeopardy. Personally, I’d just as soon recall the agenda item back and take a ‘No’ vote on it.”
Councilwoman Hightower then queried Davis further.
“I don’t know if there’s a guarantee even though they say we don’t compile information, because still, as you stop, people, you look at their driver’s license. Speak to me, Mr. Davis, about that information.”
“I think what you’re speaking of is two separate searches,” Davis said. “You look at their local information, whether it be driver’s license or whatever, is completely separate, and on different platforms than immigration status or looking to determine someone’s citizenship.”
“But when you write a ticket and give it to someone, it goes to the county,” Hightower said. “It contains their identification information, and we would be a participant in documenting information.”
“You are correct in that we would collect and document information,” Davis said. “We’re speaking of whether that information is shared for the purpose of obtaining or trying to obtain or understand immigration status.”
“But if we document it and have it in writing,” Hightower said, “and somebody from ICE comes and says ‘can we see your ticket or citation information,’ would we say no?”
“ICE is a Federal agency,” Davis explained. “If it requests, GPD obviously would cooperate. But again, it’s not the practice, and there’s no consistent partnership with ICE to do what you’re saying.”
Kennedy expressed similar concern and said that she thought the Dec. 17 vote was on whether the council would have the public hearing, as required by the grant application.
“Were we having the public hearing that night, or were we accepting the grant?” Kennedy asked.
“Having the public hearing,” replied city attorney Chuck Watts.
“So, we have not at this point formally accepted this grant?” Kennedy asked.
“That’s the way I understand it, yes,” Watts said.
“When will the vote happen that will approve or not approve that grant?” Kennedy asked.
City manager David Parrish responded. “There would likely be a budget amendment similar to actions you’ve taken at council meetings when we actually receive the grant.”
Abuzuaiter expressed her frustration with the confusion. “I want to make it very, very clear that I’m assuming my colleagues read their agendas. On 11-19, it was item No. 23 on your consent agenda. Therefore, from November to December, I don’t like it being said that this was not advertised properly, because it was. It was advertised properly because it was on there on Nov. 19.”
Abuzuaiter stated that the grant was only for crime prevention. “It is not trying to have us work with ICE. We are not working with ICE,” she continued. “This is not to collect data on people of color or people who look foreign in order to turn over to ICE. We have accepted this grant for how many years? It’s been 10, 15, 20 years, and we have not turned the information over to ICE.”
As previously reported, in 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Session announced that the Justice Department “will only provide Byrne JAG grants to cities and states that comply with federal law, allow federal immigration access to detention facilities, and provide 48 hour-notice before they release an illegal alien wanted by federal authorities.”
The city attorney stated that he had just consulted his database and that the matter of whether or not to accept the grant would come before the council on Jan. 21.
“I just want it to be clear,” Hightower said. “I hear all this about we’ve done it before, but when you know better, you do better. And if this is the case now, then we do better. In today’s climate, I don’t trust anything coming down from the Federal government. They can change their mind at any given time, and I don’t want to put citizens in this situation at risk. So, I’m not going to support it.”
“And the mayor said,” Hightower continued, “in an email and in a Facebook post, that we voted and approved this grant. She said it. That is the reason why it concerned me. I read my agenda; absolutely, reading is fundamental. I propose we recall it for clarity. I prefer not only to vote no but to reconsider the item.”
“Like I said, Jan. 21 will be the opportunity to vote as you wanted to,” Parrish replied.
“We have not received anything, and we have not resolved to accept anything,” said District 3’s Justin Outling. “I think it’s clear that what we did consisted of what I think several people have said their understanding was. They voted to conduct a public hearing, and we have not received a grant, and we have not resolved to accept a grant.”
Outling responded to another point raised by Davis. “The purpose of the information we collect isn’t necessarily to provide it to ICE or to any other Federal agency, but I do think it’s a legitimate question and line of inquiry and something that should be answered about how information that’s collected may be used, because you can have a purpose be very different than an effect, and the last thing that anyone wants to do on any topic, especially this one, is to have unintended consequences. Especially in the light of the reality that departmental policies are not within the purview of the city council necessarily. So, while this police chief, for example, can have a policy not to share certain information with ICE, that can be subject to change.”
The discussion then moved on to other items on the agenda. After the council adjourned, I told Outling that I had also been confused as to what exactly was voted on at the last meeting of 2019.
“What I took from the last meeting,” Outling said, “was that it was essentially a public hearing to have a public hearing. I didn’t have too many questions knowing that it was going to come back for a vote. I will say tonight that I became more confused.”
He said that he had understood Davis’s email response to Councilwoman Thurm to be “essentially, that we don’t have information to give [to ICE], that we couldn’t cooperate, in the sense at issue, even if we wanted to, even if there’s a change in departmental policy. But I thought he responded a little bit different to a lot of questions by Councilwoman Hightower. That’s why we just need to have absolute clarity before the actual vote on any grant we might receive.”
In the interest of that absolute clarity, I asked Outling about what Vaughan had indicated: that the public hearing had already taken place, and the next step was the vote on whether or not to accept the grant.
“No, no, I would suspect that we need to have a public hearing so people can discuss the merits of whether or not to accept the grant, and we have a discussion of where we have greater clarity on what exactly is a component of that grant.”