Welcome Dayton program under fire again

Sheriff says city welcomes those who have not been vetted.

In the wake of another terrorist attack in Europe, Dayton’s policy of welcoming immigrants is again in the middle of a debate over whether the city offers sanctuary to those who come here illegally.

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said he believes the city offers sanctuary to immigrants here illegally — a point hotly disputed by those who promote Dayton’s program.

Plummer is critical of city policy because he says it encourages people to come to Dayton who have not been vetted properly by the federal system.

“We have to properly vet those coming into our country,” said Plummer, who is also chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party. “We can’t just let every immigrant in.”

But Melissa Bertolo, who coordinates the Welcome Dayton program, said Dayton is not a “sanctuary city,” and that the program is focused, not on recruitment of immigrants but on making Dayton welcoming so that “people make the choice to make Dayton their home.”

“Welcome Dayton is an initiative that is focused on individuals who are currently living in (the) Dayton community and encouraging community integration,” Bertolo said. “We work in a collaborative manner across sectors to ensure immigrants and refugees have equitable access to services, know their rights and are contributing members of our community.”

Mayor Nan Whaley has long championed the Welcome Dayton policy. In 2014 the federal government asked Dayton officials to consider possible locations to temporarily house some of the huge influx of undocumented children caught crossing illegally from Mexico. Whaley said then that the city was willing to allow needy children to be housed here and two possible locations were suggested to the feds. Opposition quickly arose, but the controversy faded as the flow of children declined and no request was made to house them here.

The definition of “sanctuary city” is fluid, depending on who is doing the talking, said Jessica A. Ramos, an attorney who focuses on immigration at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

“That’s not what I would call Dayton,” said Ramos. “Dayton is trying to be a welcoming place for everyone regardless of whether you are a U.S. citizen or whether you are a refugee. We are trying to make people feel welcome.”

Ramos said the idea behind the Welcome Dayton initiative is that it is healthy for a community to have a robust and diverse community.

The federal government’s failure to reform immigration law, she said, forces people to live in the shadows because huge backlogs in the legal system make it impossible for them to become legal citizens.

Dayton Police spokeswoman Cara Zinski Neace directed questions about police policies to city spokeswoman, Toni Bankston.

“The City of Dayton was sad to hear about the recent attacks on Belgium,” Bankston said. “We urge our state and federal leaders to work together in the fight against terrorism. We remain committed to working collaboratively with partner groups and agencies to help ensure safety across the Dayton region.”

Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies, said when a tragedy like the attacks in Brussels occurs the tendency is for people to call for a clampdown on the whole system.

The public debate is rarely nuanced enough to recognize that there are many different kinds of immigrants — both legal and illegal — and that people are in the country for a variety of reasons, he said.

“Clearly immigration is a very complicated issue,” Smith said. “The issue is too complicated to be dealt with through emotional reactions.”

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