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Stith and immigration: Game-changer or gaffe?

This week has seen the mayoral campaign -- or at least Thomas Stith's half of it -- take a decidedly negative turn. First came what Barry pointed out, some questionable mailers mocking Bill Bell as being soft on crime.

Stith_civitas_final Then, we have yesterday's report of robo-calling for the Stith campaign, with in the words of blog-pal Joe, the campaign saying "something like he thought others were making Durham a safe haven for illegal immigrants."

Barry Saunders has already run a great column today about why Stith's negative campaigning is a bad idea. But there's more to this particular story that's worth exploring along two different grounds. First, is Durham actually a sanctuary city for immigration? The evidence is murky, but there are plenty of grounds on which to say, no, it isn't.

And second: to the extent this is a tet-a-tet, it may most clearly be between Stith and his own political past, since he voted for the policy he's now calling to change.

Is Durham a Sanctuary City?

First off: John Ham (the former managing editor of the Herald-Sun caught up in the ridiculous Paxton Media bloodletting) commented on a John Locke Foundation-run blog about the question of Durham being a so-called 'sanctuary city' for illegal immigrants on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 6. To Ham, it seems, the vote of the City Council back in 2003 on a document titled "Resolution Supporting the Rights of Persons Regardless of Immigration Status"--

The naive and embarrassing vote by the City Council four years ago to declare Durham a “sanctuary city” may soon come back to haunt the Bull City. Sanctuary cities, those that have chosen to ignore federal laws and allow illegal immigrants a pass, are a magnet that draws illegals.

Just a few hours later, Stith's campaign had (according to the N&O's helpful account) sent out a press release the morning before the council meeting calling for a change in the City's policy. The policy in question was enacted by the City Council in 2003.

That afternoon, the immigration question popped up in the City Council work session, with Stith apparently raising the charge that the City's policy was wrong and needed review. 

(Interestingly, Ham notes in his follow-up that only hours after his post about illegal immigration went up at the JLF's Right Angles blog, the 'sanctuary city' question "became a topic of discussion among City Council members," though not noting that Councilman Stith and Ham shared, until this spring, a common source of funding for their employment.)

In a follow-up post on the subject, Ham goes on to note that Durham is a sanctuary city in part because, ipso facto, it appears on lists of such cities on the Internet. (A list that includes such notable blogs as "Be A Soldier in the Army of the Lord," taglined "Want to Join the Battle? Accept Jesus Christ!", and of course, I didn't really cherry-pick these, either -- they're among the top hits at Google's blogsearch site.)

Ham also cites a Durham P.D. general order that enacts the City Council resolution and quotes some text from it by way of arguing that the DPD was essentially "ignor[ing] illegal immigration."

But what, precisely, is a sanctuary city? And are we one?

I decided to look for a definition and could think of no better place to start than the home of our  fairly unbalanced friends at Fox News; a commentator there describes them as cities whose policies "prevent the federal government from enforcing our immigration laws and removing non-citizens who have no legal right to be here."

Well, if you read both the City Council resolution and DPD order as posted at the JLF blog, I think your interpretation might be the same as mine: namely, that the City doesn't go around asking Spanish-speaking individuals if they're here illegally, and doesn't threaten deportation in interrogations, go around trying to sweep up illegal immigrants, etc. What the DPD will do, however, is also clear:

"This General Order shall not be construed as prohibiting any member of the Department from cooperating and sharing information with federal or state authorities and other governmental entities as required by law.

If upon investigation probable cause to arrest exists unrelated to a person’s individual immigration status, officers may arrest for an offense, using discretionary guidelines set forth in General Order 1005, Limits of Accountability, Authority and Discretion. Verifying the undocumented status of any person and processing prisoners appropriately will be the responsibility of the detention facility."

This jives with what was revealed in the Sept. 6 City Council meeting by Ron Hodge, namely, individuals who are arrested are in fact name-checked against databases of immigration law violators, and the Feds are called in if someone so discovered is in custody.

(Update: I think it remains open to interpretation whether DPD's current practices are at variance with General Order 4073. Ray Gronberg from the H-S asserts that it is in the comments here and has a useful discussion on the subject in his Sept. 10 discussion of the subject. The matter looks grayer to me, but I wanted to highlight the fact that there's some question as to this point. See the comments for more. I would note that, even if the City's practice is at odds with the technical rule in General Order 4073, even by the most restrictive policy (the General Order), Durham still wouldn't meet the righties' definition of being a 'sanctuary city,' since the City does cooperate with immigration enforcement officials.)

Not exactly what I'd define as a 'sanctuary city' for illegal immigration. For that matter, even if Durham has passed this now-infamous October 2003 resolution guiding today's policies, how many American cities -- and I ain't talking about Hazelton, Pa. -- are sending cops off the beat to go rounding up illegal immigrants?

But on to the second issue:

Is Stith Flip-Flopping on Immigration Enforcement?

The second, and just as interesting, question is -- what's up with Stith coming out with automated phone calls questioning Durham's policy on illegal immigration?

After all, Stith was on the City Council that voted in the policy four years ago.

Stith_resolution_final Even more eyebrow-raising: Stith not only voted in favor of the policy, he seconded the motion on the floor to do so.

From the media coverage of the Sept. 6 Council meeting, I accepted at face value Stith's mention of wanting to review the policy as typical electioneering, but not the worst example of it I could imagine. And, technically, wanting to review a decision you made four years ago is not per se a flip-flop; it's reasonable to reconsider past decisions. Anyway, it's passive campaigning, taking a stand in a meeting and living with the news coverage.

But when you start making a campaign issue out of it, marketing yourself as wanting to change the City's policy when it's a policy you voted for four years ago -- you've stepped from passive to active campaigning. And, to my mind, you've officially flopped what you once flipped.

Now, the JLF blog mentioned that Stith voted for the resolution, though moving past the subject so stoicly ("[Stith] urged support for the resolution as a human rights issue") you could almost hear the Popies trying to explain it away as a matter of conscience. But, from what I could find, the H-S and N&O haven't picked up on this little discrepancy in the voting record. (Correction: The H-S covered this on Sept. 10 - see H-S reporter Ray Gronberg's comments below.)

Will this matter? I tend to think it might, for a few reasons.

First, Durham voters aren't the kind of knee-jerkers who'll immediately flock to Stith based on an immigration stand. It would work in some of the Wake County suburbs, or up in Granville County somewhere, but it probably ain't going to fly here with most voters.

Secondly, if you look at the voters who would care about such an issue -- when they find out Stith voted for something, before he voted against it (metaphorically speaking), they're likely to look rather askance at where Mr. Stith is coming from on the subject.

Third, negative campaigning on a local level is something that, from what I've gathered, hasn't been seen in a big way in recent memory 'round these parts.

And frankly, if you're going to put yourself out on a limb with a robo-call attack ad, you better not have something like a change of position in your voting history.

Fourth, I think Durham voters are smart enough to understand that cracking down on the "crime problem" in the Bull City means going after people causing havoc in the City, not wasting time stopping persons of possible Hispanic origin on the street and asking for their IDs. (Which, as far as I can tell, is one of the few things that's different between the status quo and a Durham without the so-called 'sanctuary city' rule.)

I'd like to see Durham's finest going after the gang-bangers, drug dealers and miscreants, too. And if they're on the U.S. immigration alert databases in use today, hand 'em over to ICE as required by Federal law. But focus our law enforcement efforts on people actively committing crimes that affect public safety and order.

It's hard for Stith to run as a law-and-order candidate in Durham if he's really more concerned with immigration law over public order. I don't think he'd say that he is -- but that's the impression you get from today's ads.

If you assume I'm a panegyrist for Mayor Bell -- I'm not. I find I generally agree with him on many positions and I think he's done a good, though certainly not stellar, job as mayor. I also think there are serious issues of accountability and responsibility in City government that need to be fixed. And there are those who think Bell has lost the passion to run an aggressive campaign, and they might be right.

But even if Stith could fix those problems that exist in local government -- which, by the way, would be a matter of great interest to many Durham voters -- I have to wonder why he's spending time on attack advertising instead of addressing the tough questions.

Frankly, this whole issue has brought to my mind the concern I had when I first heard he was running: Would a Mayor Stith be an independent voice for Durham, or a parrot of the John Locke Foundation's cause? I think he's shown some good sense on issues like the ballpark vote and other topical questions, so I haven't thought the latter.

But the timing of the JLF blog-meets-campaign statement, all in the same morning, looks bad. It's something you'd see if the JLF were running the campaign.

The best thing Stith could do is to explain how he can justify these phone calls, or discontinue them entirely. Because it doesn't look the platform he's standing on here is all that steady. 



It's also interesting to note that different people are getting different calls. The call one of my neighbors received began something like this: "Hello, this is...Thomas Stith. I know what it's like to be pulled over by the police because of the color of my skin..." My neighbor just happens to be black.

The call I received made no mention of that at all. I just happen to be white Coincidence?

Perhaps you should conduct a survey and see who received the most outrageous microtargeted robo-call?


Thanks for helping us figure out exactly WHO is dumping all this $$$ into Stith's negative campaign.

We recieved a recorded phone message yesterday from the Stith campaign railing about what a "sanctuary" D-town is for "illegals". (I'm paraphrasing here).

I think Stith's entire campaign is tasteless, Rovian and part of some larger agenda.

More importantly, doesn't anyone remember WHY it's important NOT to hassle law-abiding, yet possibly illegal aliens? To get their cooperation in solving CRIME, that's why. Many alien residents don't report CRIME because of fear of the federales. Jeez, Louise, have conservatives just lost their minds lately? When it's convenient these "conservatives" can rail about "state's rights", then the next moment they want everyone to work for the Federal Government.

Let's quash, condemn and correct Stith's campaign loudly, often and up until election day.


More and more I wish I had transcribed Mr. Stith's message. I assumed that probably everyone in Durham got it, but now I see that he's sending different calls to different people.

I also find it kind of amusing that I got (what I regard as) an essentially anti-Hispanic call when so many people take my last name as Hispanic. Doesn't anyone check on these things? :)


I was at a Bill Bell event this afternoon, and as expected, this was a hot topic. A couple of folks have kept the message on their answering machines; i'm trying to get a copy and/or a transcription. Definitely two different messages were reported. One with the preface Kevin mentions above, one without. And apparently which call you receive depends on your skin color.

I have not gotten either of these calls.

Ray Gronberg

Kevin, your comment that the H-S hasn't noticed or reported on Stith's voting record in this matter is inaccurate. See Fifth paragraph:

"The 2003 resolution passed that year with support from a majority of the council's present members, namely Stith, Councilman Howard Clement, Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden and Mayor Bill Bell, and said Durham officials should refrain from asking about immigration status unless required otherwise 'by law, or by court order.'"

I would also take issue with your characterization that DPD policy "jives with what was revealed" about departmental practice by Deputy Chief Hodge. General Order 4073 permits no inquiry into immigration status by DPD personnel.

Kevin Davis

Ray: Thanks for the comments. You are of course 100% right as to the H-S piece; I couldn't find it in a search of the H-S archives on the web site, though I did not delve into Lexis-Nexis (or, of course, could have just missed this). I'll correct that on the piece.

In re General Order 4073: I interpreted the reading of the sentence "[o]fficers shall not inquire into the immigration status of any person, nor shall they engage in activities designed to ascertain the immigration status of any person" as being focused on actions officers should take during on-the-street, pre-arrest stops. That sentence is located in the section titled "Identification Procedures During Stops and Calls."

I don't see a conflict between Hodge's claims of database checks and Order 4073. Just because DPD isn't supposed to check immigration status of individuals pre-arrest doesn't mean that checking the names of arrested individuals against law enforcement databases after arrest violates the policy. Hodge's read of current procedure -- assuming the department takes its current action only after bringing a suspect into custody -- seems OK to me by 4073.

It's also worth noting that the policy goes on to state that should DPD officers encounter or suspect some of what immigration policy critics might consider some the worst situations -- drop houses for transferring or holding illegal immigrants, or vehicles used to transport same -- officers should "detain all at the scene" and contact Homeland Security.

Again, of course, this was all to my read. Ray, you've been looking at this longer than I have and I could well be wrong about the letter of the policy on this.

Even in that event, I would argue that the following still holds in re compatibility of the policy's spirit: the intent of the City Council resolution and DPD's actions (in practice, at least) both appear consistent in an intent and action of DPD not going around asking people their immigration status during an interrogation or as cause for a stop. Post-arrest, my understanding is immigration status is a more open subject.

To my mind, this behavior is not in the realm of what some call 'sanctuary city' activity, in which local governments are reputedly actively resisting ICE/DHS policies. Some conservatives may disagree -- I would ask them, in turn, for examples of municipalities Durham's size or larger that are actively stopping individuals on the street to ascertain immigration status. Be it de jure or de facto, it's not my impression that that's a task local law enforcement in most cities have ever taken on.


I'm still scratching my head as to why Stith would be trying to make hay out of immigration when he voted for the policy. The fact that the H-S had already revealed this in last Monday's paper makes it all the more puzzling to my mind.

That Stith makes the claim (as quoted in the H-S) that we need to make the 2003 policy that the Council voted on more reflective of current DPD practice still ignores the fact that he voted for the current policy, and that he and Bell seem on the same page on this.

Mike Woodard

There were two robocall messages, one for white households and one for African-American households. A few bi-racial couples I know found this delineation interesting since the robot had to choose one or the other message for their homes.

Here is the text of the message we received at our house:

Hello. This is Thomas Stith.

Did you know that Durham is a sanctuary city, a city where illegal immigrants commit crimes without fear of deportation?

That's right. Our local police can't inquire about the citizenship of people who commit a crime in our city. We can change that with your help. [Who is "we"?]

At Monday night's City Council meeting, I'm going to introduce a resolution to end the policy that makes Durham a safe haven for illegal immigrants.

Call members of the City Council and attend the City Council meeting to show your support.

I'm Thomas Stith. Thank you for your time.

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