City administration seeks to put immigrants, refugees at ease

Dayton’s police chief and top administrator spoke publicly this week to try to reassure the community that the city’s policing strategy will not change despite President Donald Trump’s executive orders seeking to crack down on illegal immigration.

At Wednesday’s city commission meeting, Chief Richard Biehl again reiterated that his department made one “minor” change to policy to ensure compliance with federal law.

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Biehl said his department’s policy continues to prohibit officers from solely investigating or taking enforcement action against people based on immigration status.

The modification to city policy “should not be mistaken as a significant shift in how we relate to our immigrant community,” Biehl said.

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The city has a strong record of supporting immigrants and refugees, but some foreign-born residents are very scared of Trump’s policies and are nervous about the police department’s policy changes, said Jessica Ramos, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, whose clients include members of these populations.

“We’ve received over a dozen calls in the last few days about how these changes will affect our clients,” she said.

Trump last week issued three executive orders on immigration and refugee admissions.

The orders seek to pull funding from “sanctuary cities” that willingly shield illegal immigrants, suspend the refugee resettlement program and block visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The orders will lead to better vetting of refugees and will make cities safer by forcing them to stop shielding illegal immigrants from enforcement actions, Steve Salvi, founder of Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, which calls for restricting immigration.

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Biehl told this news organization that the city only revised its policy regarding when his department contacts immigration authorities about suspects in low-level offenses. He again emphasized that local police agencies do not have legal authority to enforce federal immigration law.

“Merely being undocumented in this country, absent other circumstances, is a civil violation,” he said. “We’ve been very clear that we lack the authority, lack any training to appropriately to do it and it’s not our mission.”

Biehl said arrests of immigrant members of the community have been stable in the last eight years, based on available data that identifies suspects’ nationality.

Last year, he said, deportations of people incarcerated at the Montgomery County Jail was at the lowest level since 2007.

“I say to the community, trust the track record of the city of Dayton and this community of being wise in how we approach our enforcement efforts,” he said.

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Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein also said the city’s policy change simply ensures compliance with federal law.

The statute she cited prohibits local and state law enforcement from restricting the sharing of information about individuals' citizenship or immigration status, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“While the administration worked to address one area in the policy … we do so with confidence because we believed the policy still provides the important protection to our immigrant and refugee community,” she said.

Dayton commissioners this week also reaffirmed their support of Dayton being a welcoming and inclusive community for immigrants and refugees.

But Trump’s executive orders have alarmed immigrants and refugees across the Dayton region, and the changes to police department policy also is instilling fear, said Ramos, with ABLE.

“These changes undermine the community policing efforts that encourage all members of the community — including immigrants — to work with the police to prevent crime and solve it,” she said.

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