October 11, 2017 Dena Jensen
Subject: Further perspective on ordinances to protect members of our undocumented immigrant community
Dear Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council:
I wrote to all of you last week regarding creating ordinances that would provide more protections for members of our undocumented immigrant community. I recently had a local government official share their perspective on that letter with me. In this case, it doesn’t matter who made the statements because I think portions of the perspective expressed to me were similar to those I have heard expressed at council meetings.
One of the things expressed to me by the official was a strong confidence in the Whatcom County Sheriff (and Bellingham Police Department) regarding immigration issues. This was something numerous county council members had also expressed at the June 27, 2017 Whatcom County Council meeting.
Another one of the things expressed to me was that the official felt that it was worthy of ridicule that members of immigrant advocacy groups in our community had sued local law enforcement in the case of Alfredo Juarez and that somehow this has broken the official’s trust in the advocacy group(s). This is something I have not heard in any council meetings, but I wanted to discuss this perspective in conjunction with the confidence council members have expressed in the Sheriff’s Office and BPD.
Here is a link to the Bellingham Herald article discussing the contents of the body cam footage in the encounter with Bellingham Police and Alfredo Juarez:
In the article it states that the reason Alfredo Juarez was pulled over was not contested by civil rights advocates, but that, “Rosalinda Guillen, an activist with a racial justice and immigrant rights group called Latino Advocacy, has said the problem is that Bellingham officers called Border Patrol at all. As a result, Lelo [Alfredo Juarez who turned out to be 15 at the time] was taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and stayed there for a day before he was brought home to his family in Mount Vernon.”
Personally I don’t believe that someone who commits a crime is deserving of unjust treatment, or of unjust conditions found in the facility in which they are placed. I feel it is important for people to look into and challenge the treatment, processing, and facilities in which those people accused of a crime are exposed to by law enforcement.
Based on the information in the body cam footage of Alfredo Juarez’ encounter with BPD, I personally do not see a legal challenge over this issue to be ridiculous. (Especially now that we are hearing more and more about all the abusive practices going on at the Northwest Detention Center.) To me, there seemed to have been a number of options the police could have taken that would not have required questioning Alfredo Juarez’s citizenship or reaching out to border patrol regarding this young person’s identity regarding a relatively minor, yet still potentially dangerous, offense.
Meanwhile, Whatcom County legally challenges people and organizations and governments and I am sure there are some of those challenges that people consider to be ridiculous. I don’t feel it would be reasonable for me to completely discount to other members of the public a portion or numerous portions of the county government, who take all kinds of actions and provide many services to their community, just because one court case may not seem justified, according to my opinion. Likewise, it is not reasonable, based on one court case they may have chosen to pursue, to have trust wiped out in advocacy organizations who are made up of highly respected community members and who are taking many types of actions and providing a wide assortment of valuable services daily to protect the rights of vulnerable peoples living in our area. Additionally, to me, this type of marginalization of these organizations and their attempts to stand up for community members who are undocumented immigrants further serves to discourage individuals who are undocumented from feeling confidence in coming forward to alert officials, like all of you, to any abuses they may have experienced.
Back to the council members expressing confidence in the Sheriff and BPD regarding immigration issues. For many years Sheriff Elfo has not taken actions to help ensure renovations are done to bring our existing Whatcom County Jail up to code, leaving our county vulnerable to possible lawsuits. He has, instead, broadcast these bad conditions to the public, going back 15 years or more, while campaigning for the building of a new and much larger facility. According to design2 LAST, since the jail was built right after building codes changed in the early 1980s, there are safety elements such as fire sprinklers that have not been added to the facility for over 20 years. According to the County Executive there have been no renovations all this time, and the only things that have been taken care of over the years, are day to day maintenance/repair issues and investment in improvements to the electronics system. During the many years this approach has been taken, workers and individuals who are incarcerated there have continued to endure many dangerous and unhealthy conditions.
With this being the case, still many of you council members seem to not be able to envision how possibly any mistakes in judgement can be made by the sheriff and people under the sheriff’s purview in regards to handling members of the undocumented immigrant community and people of color. When individuals and agencies have so much power and authority, the thing is, it doesn’t even have to be intentional negligence or nefarious practices that result in victimization of undocumented immigrants or people of color. It can be mistakes that officers make under pressure or due to fatigue, or one particular officer’s or team’s approach, or shortcuts that are taken, or a lack of being informed on current best practices in a particular area, or lack of regulations that provide clear enforceable boundaries of what they can and cannot do, or lack of provisions for involvement of community members who are designated to work with them to prevent mistakes or catch them when they occur.
In my opinion the best restaurant owners are those that put their kitchens at the front of the house. The Whatcom County Sheriff and Bellingham Police Department are agencies whose employees have an immense amount of power over individuals in the community. Their practices being challenged by members of the public and various organizations advocating for groups of people who are typically vulnerable to oppression and victimization seems unquestionably to be a critical need for a healthy community. Frankly, such challenges should be welcomed by law enforcement authorities who are proud of their practices and want them to continue to improve.
I call on you once again to promptly take action to create and adopt ordinances that offer protections, which include clear accountability and citizen oversight, for our community members who are undocumented or vulnerable to descrimination due to their race or culture.
County Council addresses: