Resolution to bar Muskegon from becoming a ‘sanctuary county’ ignites another round of contentious debate centered on immigration

Audience members stand in line to address the County Commission on Tuesday.

Amidst contentious debate and fiery exchanges, two people being escorted from the room by police, and a crowd that packed the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday afternoon, a divided legislative body ultimately decided it would not vote on a resolution barring Muskegon from becoming a “sanctuary county.”

A sanctuary county entails being a region that would protect undocumented immigrants from deportation, including permitting local law enforcement to not work with federal officials on immigration matters. No commissioner has called for Muskegon to be a sanctuary county.

Embroiled in a larger national conversation about immigration, the commissioners’ move follows months of often explosive debate over immigration at County Commission meetings—including residents both lauding and lambasting a resolution from Commissioner Marcia Hovey-Wright that called for Muskegon County to “build a welcoming, diverse and neighborly atmosphere in our community, where all are welcomed, accepted and fully integrated.” That resolution—which Hovey-Wright said was meant to counter the rise in hate crimes against people of color, including those born in the United States, and immigrants—has not been voted on.

Tuesday’s decision too comes at a time when no commissioner ever proposed that Muskegon become a sanctuary county, but after Commissioner Zach Lahring argued Hovey-Wright’s resolution was a stepping stone to becoming one.

“This resolution is based on false information because there was never any intent by anyone to make Muskegon a sanctuary county,” Commissioner Bob Scolnik said of the resolution introduced Tuesday by Commissioner Gary Foster. “Sheriff [Michael] Poulin complies with all ICE [U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement] regulations and communicates with ICE regarding every detainee, not once but three times per inmate; that’s according to the sheriff himself. The sheriff has said those ICE detainees make up a quarter of 1 percent of inmates that are admitted to the county jail.”

[Left to right] Commissioners Gary Foster, Rillastine Wilkins, Ken Mahoney, and Zach Lahring.
Foster—who represents Casnovia, Cedar Creek, Egleston, Holton, and Moorland Townships—had planned to introduce the resolution regarding Muskegon not becoming a “sanctuary county.” That resolution was tabled in part because Commissioners Hovey-Wright and John Snider were absent at Tuesday’s meeting, Board Chairwoman Susie Hughes said. Following that resolution being tabled, Foster introduced a similarly worded resolution that again aimed to bar Muskegon County from becoming a sanctuary county.

Foster’s original resolution stated that, “across the country, various states and municipalities have enacted policies to provide ‘sanctuary’ to illegal aliens, even though such individuals are in violation of federal immigration law” and that “a sanctuary county means welcoming illegal undocumented immigrants.” The resolution goes on to say “the County of Muskegon believes that such ‘sanctuary’ policies are harmful to the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the County of Muskegon for numerous reasons, including but not limited to undermining law enforcement, encouraging violations of federal immigration law, and jeopardizing receipt of federal funding.” It concludes that “the sentiment of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners is that we oppose becoming a sanctuary county and instead will focus on the health, safety and general welfare of the residents and taxpayers of the County of Muskegon” and that “the County of Muskegon shall not become a sanctuary county and the residents of Muskegon County shall be the primary concern of the County.” [To see the full wording of the original resolution, you can click here.]

Following the resolution being tabled early in the meeting, Foster returned with a second motion from the floor that said, “the County of Muskegon should not become a sanctuary county” and “the residents of Muskegon County shall be our primary concern.”

Ultimately, the commissioners did not move forward with that resolution because they previously voted against a commissioner being able to make a resolution from the floor without the support of two other commissioners prior to presenting it—something the commissioners’ attorney confirmed but which Lahring said was inaccurate. Lahring—who represents Fruitport Charter Township, Ravenna Township, and Sullivan Township—argued the wording of the resolution passed by commissioners said any motion coming from the floor will require the support of two, not three, commissioners.

Foster and Commissioner Rillastine Wilkins—who represents portions of Muskegon and Norton Shores, as well as all of Muskegon Heights—said that, following the months of debate over immigration at County Commission meetings, Foster’s resolution was an attempt to end the arguing and move ahead with other Commission matters.

“Let us start the healing,” Foster said.

But, for others, the resolution was unnecessarily driving a deep ideological wedge among Muskegon County residents.

“I’m sad we’re dealing with this issue,” said Commissioner Ken Mahoney, who represents Blue Lake Township, Dalton Township, Montague Township, White River Township, Whitehall Township, the city of Montague, and the city of Whitehall. “It’s a divisive issue in the county; it’s a divisive issue nationally…It divides citizens one against another, and it’s not something we need to deal with. It presents neighbor against neighbor over an issue we have no control over; it’s a federal immigration issue, not a county issue.”

Audience members clap during the meeting.

Scolnik, as well as a number of audience members, issued criticism of Lahring, who has largely been championing the fight against Hovey-Wright’s welcoming city resolution and has been filling county meetings with constituents who back his stance on everything from undocumented immigrants to Planned Parenthood (he too led the charge that resulted in Planned Parenthood being ousted from its home in the county). 

“As an elected official, I’ve always tried to be respectful of my fellow county commissioners, even when it’s sometimes been pretty difficult,” Scolnik said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve been a public servant for years, and I’ve never seen the level of fear and hatred in politics in Muskegon County that I’ve seen since once of my fellow commissioners has promoted right-wing conspiracies.”

“I don’t see his Facebook posts; I don’t want to see,” continued Scolnik, who represents Norton Shores. “But people have sent me screenshots of his insulting comments regarding me, and his posts promoting conspiracy theories, anti-gay rhetoric and numerous other divisive and hateful comments.”

Scolnik too emphasized he has received distressed feedback from Muskegon County residents regarding anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“At the last board meeting, we had a legal immigrant who called me after the meeting and expressed her fear of being in this courthouse due to the hateful comments that were directed at her while she was standing out in the lobby,” Scolnik said. “The division and spreading of fear and hatred is not in line with our county government’s mission, which states we have an appreciation of the community’s rich diversity.”

Commissioner Charles Nash, who represents a portion of the city of Muskegon, too said the debate over immigration is “dividing our community and it needs to stop.”

“It’s the top floor that’s leading this charge, and that’s a shame and appalling,” Nash said.

Lahring did not directly respond to the criticism during Tuesday’s meeting, though a number of his supporters defended and praised him.

“Somebody needs to drain the swamp in this county, and we’ve got one guy that’s interested in doing it,” an audience member said, referring to Lahring. “I hope some of the rest of you start to take a look at what’s going on here. You have a meeting, and you don’t have enough space to accommodate a third of the people. Now what kind of deal is that? You don’t want to know what the people think.”

Criticism of the Commission meeting room—a space located on the fourth floor of the county courthouse and which routinely is not large enough to accommodate the crowds that gather for meetings—was voiced by individuals across the ideological spectrum. A number of people called on commissioners to change the time of their meetings until the evening, when constituents who work 9-5 jobs could attend. Currently, County Commission meetings begin at 3:30pm.

“I would request you change the meeting time to 5:30pm so the public and working public can attend,” said Ellen Beal, of Fruitport. 

Dozens of Muskegon County residents spoke during the meeting, with individuals addressing everything from ardent support for immigrants to vehement criticism of sanctuary cities. Tuesday’s debate comes at a time when illegal immigration in the United States is at the lowest it has been in a decade and with the backdrop of a White House that has made anti-immigration policies and rhetoric a bedrock of its tenure—from restricting legal immigration and slashing the number of refugees able to enter the country to pushing for the indefinite detention of migrant families.

With Lahring and a number of individuals who spoke Tuesday arguing that undocumented immigrants, and sanctuary cities, lead to an increase in crime, it’s worth pointing out that research does not support those claims.

The County Commissioners meeting room on the fourth floor of the Muskegon County courthouse.

According to a 2017 analysis from the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think-tank, legal and undocumented immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans. In a different study, researchers from four universities came together to analyze the immigration rate and crime in 200 large and small metro areas between 1970 and 2010. They found that where immigration increased, violent and property crime generally decreased. The Marshall Project and the New York Times extended that data to 2016; their findings remained the same.

As for sanctuary cities, a series of studies have found there is no increase of crime in sanctuary cities. A 2017 study from the “Urban Affairs Review” journal discovered that crime did not increase in cities after they implemented sanctuary policies and that the sanctuary policies had no effect on the rates of violent crime, property crime, and rape. Three other studies have come to similar conclusions.

Some speakers on Tuesday emphasized pro-immigrant policies can improve public safety by making undocumented—and documented—residents feel secure enough to cooperate with police and other officials.

“Being in the country without proper immigration status is a civil infraction, not a crime,” said Elvira Hernandez, an administrative assistant at the West Michigan regional office of the ACLU Michigan in Grand Rapids.

“No person is an illegal person,” continued Hernandez, who received jeers from members of the crowd upon announcing she was from the ACLU. “There’s no such thing as an illegal human being.”

Many of the individuals who are undocumented in the U.S. do not have papers because they’ve overstayed visits previously allowed by work or travel visas—which, as Hernandez noted, is not a violation of federal criminal law. It’s a civil violation. Under federal law, it is a crime for anyone to enter the United States without the approval of an immigration officer. The crime is a misdemeanor. It is not a crime to seek asylum at the United States border.

Eva Alvarez, a public policy coordinator with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Kalamazoo, noted that 21 communities in Michigan have passed welcoming resolutions, including in Kalamazoo, Wayne and Oakland counties. 

“They aim to uplift and unite their communities,” Alvarez said. 

Others echoed the sentiments of Foster and Wilkins.

“This stops the fighting,” Tim Cross, a pastor from the Living Word Church of Muskegon, said in reference to Foster’s resolution. “These past few days [while discussing the resolution] I’ve been called a hater, a racist, a bigot. This divides us, and it needs to be put to rest.”

Tobi Hildebrand, of Fruitport, said she is “against the sanctuary city” and argued the majority of Muskegon residents are as well.

“I’m tired of minority opinions running the majority,” she said. “…It’s time we take back our county, our state and our country.”

Hildebrand too praised Lahring.

“I learned we have a voice here in Muskegon County,” she said of Lahring. “Without a certain commissioner putting out information, I wouldn’t know what’s going on because you all hide it.”

Others were not as pleased.

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“You are spreading like a cancer,” Ben Evans, of the city of Muskegon, said to Lahring. “You are a fascist…You are very disappointing to more than me.”

While Evans was making his statements, Hughes, who represents Muskegon Charter Township, asked that police remove Evans.

Patrizia Maybee, of Muskegon, asked Lahring to apologize to her “and all the women in this room” for a Facebook post he made saying he’s “expecting the women’s league of communist voters to turn out ‘heavy’ ? at [Tuesday’s] meeting.”

“I felt very insulted by it,” Maybee said of Lahring’s post. “My first husband and current husband served in the military. My mother escaped the Nazis in Italy. To see that he called all Democratic women Communist cut me to the core.”

“I was very angry; I wanted an apology and he sat there smirking at me,” Maybee said following the meeting. “I think he owes all women an apology.”

A screenshot of Commissioner Zach Lahring’s Facebook status, which Muskegon resident Patrizia Maybee said deeply offended her.

Ana, who asked that her full name not be used, said this debate over immigration in the county has left her feeling angry and afraid.

“The color of my skin defines who I am; every time I go anywhere it defines who I am,” Ana said to commissioners. “You don’t know if I’m legal or not, but because of the color of my skin, you assume I’m probably not. And because of that, I’m targeted…for the first time in many, many years.”

“You are dividing us here…shame on you,” Ana continued.

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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