A hearing over legislation that would ban sanctuary cities in Michigan prompted fiery testimony from a Holocaust survivor, who likened the immigration crackdown under President Donald Trump to Nazis rounding up Jews.
The Michigan state House is considering bills that would prevent cities from enacting policies that limit cooperation between local authorities and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. These so-called “sanctuary policy prohibition acts” have similar counterparts in more than 30 other state legislatures.
At a hearing on the bills Wednesday, representatives heard about an hour of testimony from opponents of the bill, none more excoriating than from Rene Lichtman, 79, who works with several groups of Holocaust survivors.
“I’m a child survivor of the Holocaust,” Lichtman said. “I was about 2 years old when the war began and I went into hiding. My family members were picked up in the streets of Paris in the very same way that ICE people are deputizing local police and picking [undocumented immigrants] up in the streets.”
He said that the French police, “deputized by the Nazis,” kept lists of Jews in Paris, “including Jewish children, including children on my street, who were picked up and went to the gas chambers while I was fortunate to be in hiding.”
“I see a lot of parallels to what is going on in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” Lichtman said.
No cities in Michigan call themselves sanctuary cities, but a few, including Ann Arbor, limit cooperation with ICE and would be in violation of Michigan law if the new bills are passed. Advocates in Ann Arbor and Pontiac have reported an uptick in immigration arrests.
Under Trump, ICE has ramped up enforcement of illegal immigration, arresting 41,000 people in the first 100 days of the new administration, a 38 percent increase compared with the same period last year.
Some local governments have immigrant-friendly policies, such as prohibiting police from honoring ICE requests to continue detaining suspected unauthorized immigrants. The White House has vowed to punish sanctuary cities, and Trump’s executive order to withhold their federal funding has been challenged in court.
Critics of Michigan’s bill and others, like the extreme law passed in Texas last month, say the push against sanctuary policies erodes safety, because immigrants are less likely to report crimes or cooperate with police.
During Lichtman’s remarks, one representative noted that Jewish immigrants were actually one of the earlier groups of people to come to the United States illegally after quota laws were put in place in the 1920s.
Lichtman responded that he had his own experience as an undocumented immigrant ― when he was about 20 and serving in the Army, his captain called him in for a meeting, telling Lichtman his name was on a list of “aliens.”
“He says, ‘What are you doing working in an intelligence unit in the army?’” Lichtman recalled. “I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know, you know I came here, I assumed I became a citizen automatically when my mother married an American citizen.’ He said, ‘Well, that isn’t the case, so get your butt into town and go see Judge so-and-so.’”
Lichtman, who came to the U.S. at age 13, said the process to get his citizenship papers was fairly simple.
“Today I would probably be ― ICE could have been called on me and I would have been shipped off,” he concluded in his testimony.
Lichtman and others’ opposition didn’t sway the representatives, who passed the bills on party lines and sent them for a full House vote. Rep. Jim Runestad (R), a cosponsor of the anti-sanctuary bills who was at the hearing, told HuffPost he’s “a rule of law person” and that the legislation would ensure cities follow federal immigration policy.
“I don’t believe that there is any relationship to what the horror of the Holocaust was, compared to what we’re talking about, almost exclusively economic immigrants, illegal immigrants, looking to advance their financial situation,” Runestad said. “One of the most horrific situations in all of human history, where a people were targeted for mass murder, and comparing it to someone who wants a good job is, to me, a very, very unfortunate comparison, and certainly no parallels, practically at all, exist between the two.”
ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the agency “does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” but added that “ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Lichtman has been telling his story at pro-immigrant rallies around the state since Trump came into office, he told HuffPost. He conceded that the “deportations” of Jews during the Holocaust ― or murders ― were more “dramatic” than deportation of undocumented immigrants, though he’s not the first to make the comparison.
“I can empathize with these people because I’ve been there,” he added. “It’s tearing families apart.”