Dem gov hopeful: Make Michigan a ‘sanctuary state’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Democrat candidate for governor Abdul El-Sayed wants to make Michigan a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants, pushing back against Republican President Donald Trump’s call to increase enforcement and deportations.

El-Sayed pitched the “sanctuary state” concept in a new policy platform outline his campaign released Monday. The former Detroit health director and son of Egyptian immigrants also proposed a public health insurance program for Michigan residents, a minimum wage increase and universal pre-school access.

“This is a bold, progressive approach to the very real and very serious problems that our state faces right now,” El-Sayed told The Detroit News in an interview ahead of a campaign event in Grand Rapids.

Absent national reform that provides a viable path to citizenship for immigrants who may have entered the country illegally, El-Sayed said Michigan should work to protect families and acknowledge the role immigrants play in some parts of the state economy, including farmers who rely on migrant workers.

Sanctuary status would mean “the state is not going to invest its own dollars, its own police force, its own corrections money equipping and empowering what seems to be questionable and often dispassionate enforcement of laws and policies that are unclear at best,” he said.

California legislators are currently considering a bill that would make it the first “sanctuary state” in the nation. The proposal would generally prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from assisting federal immigration enforcement officers or asking residents about their legal status.

The Lansing City Council this month approved a similar resolution but later removed the words “sanctuary city” after business groups expressed concerns it could draw unwanted attention from the Trump administration.

The president signed an executive order in January that threatens to cut off federal grant funding for sanctuary cities, declaring that many immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas “present a significant threat to national security and public safety.”

A Republican bill introduced this year in the Michigan House would also bar local governments from enacting or enforcing policies to prohibit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Violating cities would lose state revenue sharing payments.

El-Sayed said he is not concerned by Trump’s threat to pull funding from governments with sanctuary policies, noting the president will want to win re-election in Michigan come 2020, a task that could be much harder if he pulled massive amounts of federal funding from the state.

“It’s important to me we are not breaking up families wantonly,” he said, “and also not breaking up full-on economies and industries in our state because of the whims of one guy who realized he could come to power by vilifying people who are a little bit browner than everyone else.”

El-Sayed took over the Detroit health department in 2015, rebuilding a government institution that had been privatized during the city’s bankruptcy. The 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar resigned in February to run for governor, joining a Democratic field that already included state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs.

Whitmer is considered an early front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2018, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township is also considering a bid. On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are considering campaigns to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, and Saginaw-area obstetrician Jim Hines is already running.

El-Sayed lacks the name recognition of Whitmer and Kildee but has been aggressively courting Democrats, campaigning in 48 Michigan cities and 23 counties so far. He’s also the youngest candidate in the race. He’d be 34 if he won election, but his campaign notes that fellow Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton was 32 when he won election in Arkansas in 1978.

The Democratic party is hoping to tap into liberal energy and angst in the wake of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump last fall. Whitmer, Cobbs and El-Sayed shared the stage for the first time last weekend at a “progressive caucus of mid-Michigan” forum in Lansing.

“Democrats got walloped” in 2016, said El-Sayed, who said he voted for Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary. “We never should have lost that.”

El-Sayed’s new policy outline echoes parts of the liberal agenda that Sanders continues to push as he attempts to realign the party. The Michigan Democrat wants to “close the wage gap” between high and low earners by raising the state’s minimum wage, implementing universal paid sick and parental leave and providing financial support for child care.

More Michigan-specific proposals include repeal of the state’s emergency manager law and new transparency laws subjecting the governor’s office and state Legislature to public records requests through the Freedom of Information Act.

A physician and public health advocate, El-Sayed also wants to create a public insurance program in Michigan, noting early plans for the federal Affordable Care Act had included a public option that was dropped from the final product signed by then-President Barack Obama.

El-Sayed said his plan will depend on what happens to the federal health care law, which Trump and congressional Republicans want to repeal and replace. It could range from “full-on public insurance program” that provides health care for all residents, he said, to a public insurance option that would compete with private plans and force them to “stay honest.”

“Every Michigander should have access to affordable, equitable and accessible health care independent of how much money they make and independent of their age,” El-Sayed said. “That is a commitment we want to make to the voters of Michigan.”

His platform outline does not specify ways he’d pay for what could be costly proposals, but El-Sayed said he wants to revisit the state tax code. Michigan relies too much on a “regressive” sales tax, he said, and the current flat income tax is not fair, suggesting a possible push toward a graduated code that forces wealthier residents to pay higher rates.