If it’s October in Salem, Halloween is in the air. There are huge crowds, excruciatingly slow traffic, and on seemingly every street corner, macabre displays that run the gamut from chilling to cheesy.
 
This year, though, there’s something else vying for locals’ attention: a long-running dispute over immigration policy that’s coming to a head.
 
“If we have people in our community who are afraid to call the police or go to the library or visit their kids’ schools, and they’re living in the shadows, that’s not good for any of us,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.
 
Driscoll is currently campaigning for a fourth term — and also for Salem’s so-called Sanctuary for Peace ordinance, which was passed by the city council this spring but now faces repeal. The ordinance says Salem will “serve all residents … regardless of immigration status”; that “City employees, [except] police officers, shall…refrain from inquiring about…immigration status”; and that Salem will “support…immigrants and their civil rights.”
 
Driscoll argues that according to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ own criteria, that doesn’t make Salem a sanctuary city — with the attendant risks that designation currently brings.
 
“The attorney general has clearly defined what they consider be a violation of existing federal law that will jeopardize federal funding,” Driscoll said. “And we do not meet that definition — that is, any community that’s not sharing information with law enforcement.
 
“Anybody in Salem … once you’re arrested, you’re fingerprinted and that information is shared with state police and federal officials,” she added.
 
In fact, Driscoll says, the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance simply formalizes what Salem’s been doing for years — though she adds that in the Trump era, that’s no small thing.
 
“If you talk to our immigrant community, it does mean something to them,” Driscoll said. "There’s a tremendous amount of fear amongst our schoolchildren, amongst people who have lived here who’ve been our neighbors and friends for years.”
 
Whether Driscoll is right that the ordinance couldn’t spark federal pushback is unclear. Among other things, it says Salem police will continue prioritizing certain serious offenses when it comes to working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And this fall, the DOJ warned several large cities that any limits on cooperation with ICE are forbidden. If the DOJ did take issue with Salem’s ordinance, hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding could be at stake.
 
For voters who don’t want to take that chance, there’s another choice for mayor.
 
“When you read through the ordinance, it actually ends up changing nothing in terms of policy and practice,” Paul Prevey, who’s challenging Driscoll for the mayor’s job, said during a mayoral debate in September.
 
Prevey is a former city councilor and retired federal probation officer. He says the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance has put “a bullseye” on the city, and is pitting neighbor against neighbor.
 
“One of the things it did do in the city … is create this divide,” Prevey said in that debate. “A lot of people are upset about it. A lot of people are angry about it.” 
 
I wanted to ask Prevey about those concerns, and about the experience of his husband, who’s from Mexico and spent five years there waiting for a US visa. But Prevey declined to be interviewed for this story. So did the co-chairs of the repeal effort.
 
Judging from colorful video one opponent posted on Facebook, repeal supporters feel they’ve been unfairly maligned. “When did obeying immigration laws and being a law-abiding citizen become a hate crime?” a fairy-costume-clad repeal backer asks.
 
Salem’s Latinos have their own sense of frustration.
 
Ana Nuncio heads Salem’s Latino Leadership Coalition and is running for school committee this fall. When the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance went on the books back in April, Nuncio says, there was a collective sense of accomplishment that turned out to be premature.
 
“We thought we had passed it,” Nuncio says. “There was a thrill that we were going to be put on the map to be affirmed as members of this community.”
 
Now, Nuncio seems guardedly optimistic that repeal push will fall short. She also describes the ordinance with a phrase that some of her allies are loath to use.
 
“For the Latino community, the word 'sanctuary' has deep resonance,” Nuncio says. “Passing this ordinance affirms Salem as a sanctuary city for immigrants. For all of us.”
 
Ultimately, though, disputes over terminology won’t matter as much as two votes looming on Nov. 7 — one in the Salem mayor’s race, and another on whether to repeal the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance or keep it on the books.