After some heated debate, Framingham Town Meeting members on Wednesday voted to request that selectmen verify the legal immigration status of participants of the town's adult English as a Second Language program.
The non-binding resolution passed by a narrow margin, 51-49, with three abstentions.
Framingham's Ways and Means Committee Chair Audrey Hall made the motion for the resolution. She said her committee was concerned that illegal immigrants may be crowding the waiting list for ESL classes, and forcing delays upon legal immigrants.
Hall said the committee was also concerned about the ESL sign-up process, which inquires whether a potential participant has legal status, but does not require that participant to furnish proof.
According to Town Attorney Christopher J. Petrini, the resolution is a legal gray area. The ESL program uses federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but there is no requirement under the terms of the grant to make participants furnish proof of their immigration status.
Town Meeting member William LaBarge said Framingham should have the right to declare what the law ought to be. "I think the resolution is appropriate," he said.
Town Meeting member Robert Snider strongly approved of the resolution, stating the ESL courses are a taxpayer-funded program, not a charity.
However, Town Meeting Member Yaakov Z. Cohn decried the resolution as one that was attempting to squeeze out illegal immigrants who may be using the ESL program to help become citizens.
Lloyd Kaye, who is a member of the ways and means committee, also opposed the resolution. "I thought that we had learned our lessons from the Civil Rights movement, but we haven't," he said.
According to the Framingham ESL Plus website, the program takes in more than 750 students each semester. It operates as a department of the public school system.
The resolution was made as part of an article that allows selectmen to accept and expend funds through a Community Development Block Grant provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That article passed unamended.
"There was concern there was a limited number of slots in the program," said Hall, after Town Meeting had adjourned for the night. "It was in such high demand, and we had heard concerns over whether the program was for people with legal alien status versus illegal alien status."
She continued: "There's only a limited number of slots, so let's find out what the rule is. It's really not a matter of anyone's opinion. We're not trying to express an opinion as to who's entitled to more education to better themselves. We're just saying, here's a program that's funded with federal dollars, and we need to know whether we're supposed to be giving priority to people have legal status or not. That's it."
The move comes as Congress considers a far-reaching overhaul that would legalize immigrants who are here illegally.
Selectmen on Thursday – the second night of Town Meeting – said they will tackle any resolutions passed at Town Meeting once the warrant is closed. With only four of 43 articles passed on Wednesday, that might be a while.
Selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti said selectmen will be cautious in its approach to the resolution.
"We'll take a look and see what options we'll have," he said.
Selectman Michael Bower likewise sounded a note of caution, and stressed that the board will likely get legal advice from town counsel before deciding whether or not to enact the resolution.
"No one wants to get the town sued," said Bower.
The narrow margin by which the resolution passed meant it was unclear whether the "will of the town" was heard, he added.
"Town Meeting was pretty split," Bower said.
John Swinconeck can be reached at JohnSwinc@gmail.com