WINSTON-SALEM, NC- Faith leaders, members of the school board and other elected officials met on the steps of city hall on a rainy Monday afternoon. It wasn’t for a scheduled city council meeting, but rather to release a statement.

“You’re welcome in our community.”

Lead by city councilman and attorney, Dan Besse, members of the group stood side by side, as Besse read from a joint statement they prepared.

“This reaffirms that we are a welcoming city and we plan to remain a welcoming community for everyone,” said Besse.

“In light of the current national environment of excessive fear and suspicion directed by some towards immigrants, refuges, and other newcomers, this is a time for community leaders to reaffirm our personal commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive community for all,” the statement reads in part.

The councilman explained Winston-Salem should remain a welcoming city for “religious and ethnic minorities as well as recent immigrants and refugees.”

Besse said he and other community leaders have heard from parents afraid to pick up their children from schools, doctors who said their patients are scared to bring their children in and community members afraid to call local police to report crimes because they've heard of ICE raids in other areas.

It’s the next step, after a resolution to officially make Winston-Salem a welcoming city was yanked in April. Besse introduced the proposal in February, but decided to pull it a few moments before it was voted on. The councilman said he was worried the resolution wouldn’t have enough support to pass, for fear of political retaliation from “the folks in Raleigh.”

Critics said Besse’s now-dead resolution was simply a way to skirt around making Winston-Salem a sanctuary city. An online petition was started, calling out the city.

"The fact that the Winston-Salem City Council is considering a vote to make us a "Welcoming City a/k/a Sanctuary City" where we would harbor illegal immigrants is distressing to us. It will cause a considerable loss of funding," the petition reads.

President Donald Trump vowed to cut off funding to local governments that didn’t cooperate with his crackdown on illegal immigration. State lawmakers in North Carolina outlawed sanctuary cities back in 2015. Recently, upon hearing of what the Winston-Salem City council planned, Sen. Joyce Krawiec, (R) Forsyth warned them against passing the welcoming city resolution.

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Winston-Salem has the largest percentage of Latinos that any other major city in the state. In addition, the Pew Research Center estimates about 25,000 undocumented immigrants live in the area.

Besse said it was never about skirting the sanctuary city language, which he called a “politically poisoned” term.

“They use it to refer to specific kinds of extra legal actions that they say some cities have taken to limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. That’s not what this has ever been about, so we elected not to use that language.”

The joint statement was signed by over 100 community leaders, including fellow councilman Derwin Montgomery, Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, State Representative Evelyn Terry and members of the board of education, NACCP and church leaders. The statement is not an official statement adopted by the city of Winston-Salem and does not change any laws or extend any legal protections. Rather, the statement serves as a symbol.

“What we were trying to do from the first is to speak to members of our community here and in Winston-Salem and nearby who feel they may have been threatened and marginalized by a hostile, national political atmosphere,” Besse explained. “We want to do everything we legally can to help keep them safe and welcome in our community and we will work as individual leaders through the faith community, through community organizations, through our levels of government at the state local and beyond to help ensure that we have a welcoming environment for our community.”

Wake Forest Baptist Church’s Pastor, Rev. Lia Scholl, who also signed the joint statement said, “We can embrace them in a loved filled way and I think this joint statement does exactly that.”

Elisabeth Motsinger, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education added, “I’m here today because all of our children, all of our children, need to know that they are welcomed, that they are loved, that they are cherished and that we value very much their right to get an education and to feel at home and at ease in Winston-Salem.”

Besse said he doesn’t plan to reintroduce an official resolution for the city council to vote on. Rather, he said the joint statement serves as a broader measure of support from leaders in the city to respect and include everyone.

Winston Salem Welcoming City Joint Statement