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Can They Do That? Activists Urge City Leaders To Resist 'Anti-Immigrant' State Laws

Gov channel screenshot by WFAE
City council faced a hostile crowd at Monday night's meeting

More than 200 people packed the gallery at Monday night's Charlotte city council meeting, chanting "no more ICE!" and shouting over city leaders as they attempted to carry out city business.

During the public comment portion, people called on Mayor Jennifer Roberts and the city council to take bolder steps to protect immigrants and to resist HB-318, a state law that effectively outlaws sanctuary cities in North Carolina.

"People are criminalized for going to work, picking up kids from school because they fear being pulled over," said one woman, "Children are afraid to come home and not find their parents home."

"Cities across the United States are taking a stance resisting Trump and his administration," one man said, "Will you? Will you protect the families that are undocumented here?"

The comments echoed a similar theme heard from activists who spoke at the "Day Without Immigrants" march and rally earlier this month, where marchers carried an oversized banner emblazoned with the words "MAYOR ROBERTS - STEP UP."

"Don't believe it when they tell you that the mayor can't do anything," Monica Bourommavong told the crowd at the rally that day, "Don't believe it! All across the U.S., mayors are doing so much more to tell Trump, 'not in my city!'"

That got us thinking, what exactly can Charlotte city leaders do in this situation? Do they really have the power to resist, or are some things out of their hands?

A Brief Civics Lesson

Charlotte is a little different from other cities in other states like, say San Francisco or New York City. We have a "weak mayor" system of government, which means the mayor can't implement policies by him or herself. The mayor needs the majority of city council to back them before they can do most things.

In June of 2015, the city council along with then-mayor Dan Clodfelter passed a resolution that effectively made Charlotte a sanctuary city. It banned local police officers from asking people, in most cases, for their immigration status, and it made clear that the city has no interest in reporting people to federal immigration authorities.

But a month later, Republican lawmakers in Raleigh passed the law mentioned earlier - HB-318. The law nullified Charlotte's resolution. It said local police can not be banned from asking people for their immigration status, and it effectively banned any other city in North Carolina from becoming a so-called sanctuary city. That law stands today.

What can Mayor Roberts and city leaders actually do about that? We asked former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.

"The mayor can't defy state law, and they can't defy federal law," he said.

So, essentially, not much.

That said, the mayor and city council aren't completely powerless. For example, the mayor does have the power of the bully pulpit, meaning she can advocate in favor of an idea and try to sway city or state leaders.

We saw Roberts employ this when she wrote a statement on Facebook earlier this month urging support for local immigrants and read it aloud to city council members. And she has indirectly criticized HB-318 in media interviews, saying it could drive immigrants further into the shadows.

Symbolic Gestures

The mayor, along with a majority backing of city council, could pass a resolution to defy the state law. Roberts said so herself while addressing people at the Latin American Coalition earlier this month, but when pitched to former Mayor Gantt, he said he didn't think it was a very good idea.

"Even then, the advice they're get from the city attorney would be that the law would be meaningless," he said, "It'd be more symbolic. And what people do not need right now is symbolism."

And Roberts herself has said doing so could provoke retaliation from the state.

At Monday night's council meeting, Mayor Roberts tried to tell protesters they should direct their voices to the state or federal government. To the protesters, that probably sounded like a cop out, but that is where the action is.

Otherwise, protesters can keep pushing city council to pass a symbolic resolution supporting immigrants, but that might not give them the results they want. Either way, it's an uphill battle.