Councilman Ditches 'Buzzword' In Bills To Protect City’s Immigrant, Refugee Populations

Jan 17, 2017

Martin Esquivel-Hernandez's wife and children, Luz, 9, Alma Brigda, center, and Shayla, 11, hold a sign during a rally for his release on Nov. 15, 2016. Advocates supporting Esquivel-Hernandez are calling on Pittsburgh officials to designate the city a sanctuary city.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Gilman is not calling Pittsburgh a sanctuary city.

He referred to the term as a "buzzword" and said legislation he introduced to council Tuesday will impact families in a more profound way. 

The package of six bills, he said, will protect the city’s immigrants and refugees without the controversial label.

In November, council members said they wanted to declare Pittsburgh a sanctuary city in order to protect undocumented immigrants. President-elect Donald Trump said in August, as a candidate, that he would block federal funding for cities that use the label.

One of the measures Gilman presented would keep the city from denying services to someone because of their immigration status. He also proposed creating a plan to improve service delivery for English language learners and prohibiting the city from working with companies convicted of wage theft.

Gilman said he met with community leaders for months and developed his City For All agenda based on those conversations.

“These really go at issues that the city government controls in Pennsylvania that we can address and that our communities that we partner with spoke clearly and loudly and uniformly on supporting,” he said.

The phrase has been highlighted recently in the city as advocates supporting activist Martin Esquivel-Hernandez have called for the city to approve “sanctuary” measures. Esquivel-Hernandez was arrested in May 2016 for driving without a license and is at risk of deportation.

Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said at a rally last month that the term is unclear.

“There is no sanctuary for undocumented people outside of a house of worship, maybe,” Perez said. “But we are going to be focused very hard on trying to develop policies locally here to do whatever we can so that we don’t have any more cases like Martin and his family’s.”

Another piece of legislation Gilman proposed calls for the police chief to create an Office of Multicultural Affairs.

The office would be charged with coaching officers on fair policing and connecting with ethnic and immigrant communities.

“You think back to the last great wave of immigration in Pittsburgh, you had a police force that reflected that diversity – whether it was Irish or German or Italian – and they understood cultural traditions and languages and it really helped build those relationships," Gilman said. "We need to do that again with the very diverse population we have here."

He said building those ties would mean victims and witnesses would feel comfortable connecting with officers who patrol neighborhoods without fear of repercussion.

Gilman said with the support of acting Police Chief Scott Schubert and Mayor Bill Peduto, if council approves the bill he expects the position to be created and filled in a few months. Council will discuss the measures at its meeting next week.