INDIANAPOLIS — A prominent Hoosier attorney with strong connections to conservative political causes is suing the city of Gary for allegedly violating Indiana's prohibition on sanctuary cities.
But some Gary city councilmen are willing to consider repealing the ordinance if it means having to defend the lawsuit, they said at Tuesday night's council meeting.
Attorney James Bopp Jr., of Terre Haute's Bopp Law Firm, filed suit Tuesday in Lake Circuit Court on behalf of four plaintiffs seeking to prohibit enforcement of the "welcoming city" ordinance approved by the Gary City Council and enacted May 22 by Democratic Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
Bopp claims the ordinance runs afoul of a 2011 Indiana law that prohibits local governments and their employees, including police, from refusing to communicate or cooperate with federal immigration authorities to protect noncitizens who entered or remained in the United States without legal permission.
Specifically, Bopp says, among other violations, the ordinance impedes communication by requiring city agencies and employees to not investigate or assist in the investigation of the citizenship or immigration status of any person, absent a court order.
He alleges it also prevents Gary police from fully cooperating with federal immigration authorities, in addition to unnecessarily requiring a criminal warrant before transferring any person in police custody to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.
"The Indiana Legislature has already acted to protect Hoosiers from criminal illegal aliens by ensuring that local officials cooperate with federal officials to ensure their deportation. But Gary forbids this," Bopp said.
"And where cities violate Indiana's anti-sanctuary-city law they put their own citizens at risk. The courts in Indiana must enjoin such violations."
Freeman-Wilson, who previously served as Indiana's attorney general, said the city believes its ordinance fully complies with Indiana law and Bopp's lawsuit is a "ploy designed to further a misdirected political agenda."
"We look forward to vigorously defending this lawsuit," she said. "Gary, Indiana has always provided leadership in Northwest Indiana in ensuring equal opportunity for all. This ordinance is no different."
Tuesday night, Councilman Herb Smith, D-at large, told fellow council members that he wanted to revisit the welcoming city ordinance. Smith said he has spoken to attorneys and it appears to clearly be in violation of Indiana law.
"If we have to defend it maybe we want to consider repealing it," Smith said.
He said he plans to bring the issue forward at the Dec. 19 City Council meeting. Council President Ron Brewer, D-at large, said he would also be in favor of repealing it if it was brought back for reconsideration.
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In addition to halting enforcement of the Gary ordinance, Bopp is requesting the court order the city to pay the costs and attorney's fees for the four plaintiffs.
According to the lawsuit they are: Jeff Nicholson and Douglas Grimes, who both live and work in Gary; Greg Serbon, a Lake County resident who often works in Gary; and Cheree Calabro, an Indiana resident with "interests in the enforcement of the law and in public safety."
Immigration issues have figured prominently in national, state and local politics since Republican President Donald Trump was elected last year, in part, based on his plans to deny federal funds to sanctuary cities and to build a wall on the nation's southern border.
In January, the Chicago City Council and Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel reaffirmed Chicago's status as a sanctuary city shortly after Trump signed an executive order threatening to strip federal grants from municipalities that refuse to assist ICE.
Since Indiana prohibits sanctuary cities, Merrillville attorney Alfredo Estrada, along with other immigrant rights supporters, promoted "welcoming city" ordinances as an alternative to show support for immigrants living in Northwest Indiana.
Gary and East Chicago both adopted welcoming city ordinances. Lake Station considered one, but postponed action on it indefinitely due to lingering questions about how it would work in practice.
Estrada could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But in September he told The Times that a welcoming city ordinance doesn't prohibit cooperation with ICE.
Instead, he said it's designed to ensure information about the immigration status of individuals seeking government services is not kept on file.
"If you don't have the information, you can’t communicate it," Estrada said.
The immigration rhetoric was ratcheted up another level Monday when U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Brownsburg, a Munster native running for Indiana's Republican U.S. Senate nomination, filed legislation that seeks to impose five-year prison terms and $1 million fines on local officials who obstruct federal immigration enforcement.
"Politicians don't get to pick and choose what laws to comply with. Americans are dying because politicians sworn to uphold the law refuse to do so," Rokita said.
"It's time the federal government gets serious about enforcing immigration laws and holding politicians accountable who conspire to break them."