Leading Ithaca as a Sanctuary City: An Interview with Mayor Svante Myrick

Mayor Svante Myrick speaks at rally for José Guzman-Lopez, who was remanded to U.S. Marshals’ custody on Friday. Hundreds protested his arrest by ICE agents earlier this month in Ithaca. Protestors hold banner reading "ICE OUT OF ITHACA" [Cameron Pollack]
November 10, 2017
Gabriella Lifsec

Gabriella: Politicians have always had disagreements but when you ran for office, did you ever think you'd be fighting this hard against policies of the federal government and our president?

Mayor Myrick: No, never. In fact, when I ran for common council, George W. Bush was president. I was knocking on people’s doors, and I had my whole platform about trash removal, odd/even parking and other things I thought we should do, and some people would ask me instead about my feelings about the war in Iraq and whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I indeed thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But what I had to say was, that it was not really relevant. So even a presidential administration that is on the right, is very different than this one. This one is not just a conservative administration, it is an openly hostile one. It is openly hostile to local government, it is openly hostile to progressive governments, and cities. The entire administration seems built to attack the rights of cities to determine their own destiny. I have spent a lot of time this year ramping up to join this fight.

Gabriella: Do you think it would be more effective to separate the issue of the current undocumented immigration crisis with future policy? By this I mean do you think more progress in government could be made by dealing with the current immigration crisis as [more of a humanitarian issue] and separate it from future immigration policy?

Mayor Myrick: I think so, but I understand why that is hard to do. I guess it depends on what you mean by success. If we were to bifurcate, it would certainly be better for the people who are here now, if we were to win. I suspect that our odds of winning a legal status for the people who are here now are better if we join their fight with the broader, comprehensive immigration reform movement. I just don’t see the other side agreeing, especially not now, after this guy got elected with no platform except ‘kick the immigrants out.’ I don't see the other side caving, or even coming towards us like they did with the Gang of Eight in the Senate back in ‘06. That’s where they came up with that bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that would allow everybody who was here now to stay, and eventually become citizens. I don’t see the other party ever agreeing to that again.

Gabriella: What is your general role in Ithaca’s immigrant community. How do you, as Mayor, respond directly to immigration issues, for example, do you team up with local groups or committees within the local government?

Mayor Myrick: I mostly work with nonprofits; Catholic workers, Catholic Charities, the Tompkins County Worker Center and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Those groups do the most direct service work with migrants and immigrants of all sorts and statuses. Sometimes I help them raise funds, sometimes I send them letters of support if they need to apply for funds from the state or federal government, and mostly just to have their back when a group like the Catholic Charities volunteers to be a refugee resettlement agency.

Gabriella: With Ithaca’s sanctuary city status, lead by you after the election, how have you actively affected this policy and what have been the biggest changes the city has made to protect immigrants?

Mayor Myrick: Our biggest changes are about how we communicate with ICE, that is to say we don’t really. We had to craft a policy that would instruct our police officers so they know first, not to ask anybody’s immigration status and second, if they stumble on anybody’s immigration status, to not share that with ICE. It has already been important this year because ICE has been far more active, trying to come into the city and force us to enforce immigration law for them, which is ridiculous. Not only is the law immoral and corrupt, and I think it is everybody’s duty to not uphold unjust laws. But even if you were to put aside whether it is just or not, like the tax code which is more or less fair, when a police officer pulls someone over for speeding, they don’t say “did you pay your taxes last year?” That is the IRS’s job. Creating a policy that would keep those two worlds separate was important at the beginning of this year because it has come up a few times since.

Gabriella: I believe there has been an ICE presence for a while, but they had not done anything before arresting and deporting Jose Guzman. Is there anything more that Ithaca as a city could have done to protect that person?

Mayor Myrick: No I don’t think we could have. The case with Jose was that they followed him to his house and picked him up off the street. Which is brutal. Where ICE typically co-opts police departments is through officer’s suspicions. What they want us to do is that if we pull somebody over for speeding, and if our police officer just has a suspicion that the person might not have a legal status, you ask them about their status. And how do we know that? The person may be brown, they may talk kind of funny. If they don’t give you a satisfactory answer, they want us to detain them, so that ICE can come pick them up and we are not going to do that. The other way they do this is that if we were to arrests somebody, say someone gets into a fight, we arrest them and keep them overnight and they see a judge, and then they are sentenced and released. What ICE would want us to do is send the names of those that we arrest to ICE so they can check them against their own database. If they get a hit, they say we’re going to come and pick them up on Wednesday, can you hold them until then. We refuse to do both those things. Jose was not actually picked up in either of those manners, so it was difficult to stop. I think that is why they did it that way frankly.

Gabriella: How has this sanctuary city policy specifically affected Ithaca as a target for federal funding cuts? Could you elaborate on the amicus brief that Ithaca has signed in order to address the issue of federal funding cuts?

Mayor Myrick: With the one about sanctuary cities, we signed on with the City of Chicago’s lawsuit against the Federal government. The feds are trying to cut funding to cities that have sanctuary status. Now they can’t cut all funding, in fact we don’t think they can cut any funding. To the degree that they can cut funding, we think that it has to be related specifically and only to the immigration enforcement activity. So, they couldn’t take away road funding because we weren’t enforcing immigration law. I think because we don’t have an immigration enforcement body, they can’t take away anything at all. Now, they are trying to say ‘Oh, we can take away your police funding,’ but our point is that our police aren’t immigration enforcement officers. The money the federal government gives us for police really should not be on the table. Now, the reason Chicago is taking the lead on this is because around half of their police force, about 10,000 people, is funded by the federal government. If they were to lose that money it would be a huge hit. We get almost no federal funding. Every other year, we will win a small grant to buy a new piece of equipment, so for us it is more about the principal than the actual money. Large cities like New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, (and NYC receives a ton of federal money for anti-terrorism efforts,) would really be struggling.

Gabriella: Coming from Cornell, how if at all, will federal funding affect Cornell?

Mayor Myrick: No I don’t think it will. Even though Cornell is committed to protecting and supporting the DREAMERS, I haven't heard this administration make noise about attacking colleges.

Gabriella: There have been a bunch of actions on campus, like the protest after the DACA decision, and I’ve seen a lot of alignment between different groups and movements. It has been great to see people supporting each other.

Mayor Myrick: And only possible, I think, with an oppositional White House. Two years ago everyone was so fractured and vying for different candidates, but now I think that all across the progressive movement, people have realized that we will sink or we’ll swim together.

Gabriella: Thank you so much for speaking with me.