Overseeing the fight for civilian oversight to protect immigrants and people of color in Bellingham / Noisy Waters Northwest

you don't have my vote postcard front cropped

postcards to mayor redacted aqua

Graphics show one postcard front side (top), and multiple reverse/message sides of postcards sent to Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville by community members in June of 2017

May 23, 2018  Dena Jensen

The following report offers information gained through a public records request I made of the City of Bellingham on January 18, 2018.

Protecting vulnerable members of our community is a shared responsibility that none of us should take lightly. As much as government agencies may strive for and purport transparency, it is generally human nature to not be able to recognize our own flaws and, if others point them out, to do our best to excuse them or deny that this flaw, which another person sees, is really there.

For these reasons and others, in pursuit of social justice, oversight of our government agencies – from outside of our government agencies – is implemented. Having more objective and diverse eyes keeping watch for bad practices, that may not even be intentional, can be helpful in both catching those practices that have occurred, and in heading off harmful actions before bad practices are engaged in.

Rumors of opposition to civilian oversight board

Dignity Vigil attendees at Bellingham City Hall. Photo credit: Brenda Bentley

In the summer of 2017,  I had begun to regularly attend the Dignity Vigils which had been going on since the Monday of the week after a February 13, 2017 Bellingham City Council meeting. Dignity Vigils, where community members come together to stand in solidarity with undocumented and immigrant families and people, have now been held for 66 weeks, as of Monday, May 21, 2018.

Once in a while, Bellingham City Council Members, on their way into City Hall for Monday committee meetings, will stop for a few moments to answer questions or offer a piece of information to vigil organizers.  It was during such an occasion that City Council Member April Barker seemed to offer the impression that Council Members were hearing comments from a number of local residents who were opposed to the idea of the City of Bellingham creating some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement regarding issues of racial profiling and any potential collaboration of law enforcement with immigration enforcement officers.

A lot of people probably remember the February 13, Bellingham City Council meeting, even though they might not know that this was the particular date in 2017 that the City Council brought forward their proposed ordinance relating to City policy with respect to immigration enforcement. In the 66 weeks since that meeting, Bellingham City Council Members have not taken any actions which have added elements of accountability to the ordinance they adopted, that would in turn, serve to strengthen protections for members of our community who are immigrants or who do not have documented U.S. citizenship.

There was a Bellingham Herald article about that February 13, Council meeting the next day after Council Members voted to approve their ordinance, since this was an issue of significant public interest and Council Chambers had been packed with local residents, with close to 30 people speaking in favor of a sanctuary city ordinance, and under half that number speaking in opposition.

The appeal to hold city employees accountable

Quite a few of the people speaking in favor of a Sanctuary City ordinance were asking Council members to either strengthen the ordinance that the Council had drafted, or to approve instead, the Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance that community members had worked with specialists in immigration law to draft, and which had been presented and discussed in meetings with the City Council. Despite input from constituents, Bellingham City Council went on to unanimously approve their own ordinance that evening, after they made some minor adjustments to it.

cob meeting maru 3

Click the graphic to view Maru Mora-Villalpando’s public comment at the 2/13/17 Bellingham City Council Meeting

Numerous members of our immigrant communities spoke that night, and at 36:34 on the City of Bellingham (COB) video of that February 13 meeting is the public comment of Maru Mora-Villalpando, a tireless advocate for immigrants rights and racial justice, leader of the Northwest Detention Center Resistance, a founder of Latino Advocacy, and a long-time resident of Bellingham without documented U.S. citizenship. Ms. Mora-Villalpando was served papers initiating deportation proceedings later on that year, despite her having never engaged in any criminal activities. In part of her comment that night in February 2016, she had said:

Therefore, it’s really important that we understand: we want an ordinance that is accountable to the people. There should be a clear sense that we, the people that live in Bellingham, have access on how that ordinance is actually going to be enforced. That is why it’s so important to have all the elements that we already provided to you all that we spent a lot of time putting together.

We worked with several people that have a lot of good, good years of working on immigration law to build an ordinance that could be a moral ordinance. Bellingham could be a moral city; not only a city, but a moral city.

One measure of accountability to which Ms. Mora-Villalpando would have been referring in her February 13 public comment, was a provision for a civilian oversight board which had been included in the proposed Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance.  This is the civilian oversight board which Council Member Barker had referenced in her remarks to Dignity Vigil organizers last year.

Civilian Oversight Board Chapter 11 KBFW

Click the graphic to access a copy of the proposed Keep Bellingham Families Working Ordinance that the Bellingham City Council chose not to vote on adopting

Questions and answers about public input to Bellingham City officials

Curious about Council Member Barker’s remarks back then, an investigative writer featured on this blog site, Sandy Robson, had called her in August of 2017 and talked to her about this issue. In the ensuing conversation, the actual number of people who were opposed to creating a civilian oversight board, and who had contacted City Council Members regarding this, seemed fuzzy. According to what Council Member Barker described, it seems that out of perhaps 25 or so communications, the number of those opposed to oversight was somewhere between 25-40%.

As a result of Council Member Barker’s initial remarks and subsequent conversation with Robson, I became increasingly interested in just exactly what types of communications Bellingham City Council Members had been receiving since the fall season of 2016. I was aware that Western Washington University’s Blue Group began communicating with the Bellingham City Council regarding their concerns surrounding immigration issues that November. Part of the stated Mission of the Western Washington University Blue Group on their Facebook page is, “to provide undocumented students with a safer space to meet other undocumented students, find resources, services, and build community.”

Eventually, on January 18, 2018, I submitted a records request of the City of Bellingham for any written communications to or from any members of the Bellingham City Council, or Mayor Kelli Linville, that included information related to immigration issues or sanctuary city status from November 1, 2016 through the date of my request.

records request emails redacted

Copies of some of the communications from Alison Henshaw who handled communications for my 1/18/18 records request from COB

It took from January 18, 2018 to May 2, 2018  to incrementally receive the hundreds of communications that were responsive to my request, most of those having been sent from local residents to Mayor Linville and City Council Members, or from City officials back and forth to each other, over the course of November 2016 to February 2017.  It appears, from my review of the records, that there were only around five additional emails on the topics of immigration or sanctuary city status that trickled in from local residents to the Council Members from a few days after City Council’s ordinance, with respect to immigration enforcement, had been approved, through May of 2017.

In terms of emails, phone calls, and phone messages that were received by city officials from community members before the February 13, 2017 Council meeting, roughly 60% were supportive of Bellingham becoming a sanctuary city, according to the records I received. Additionally however, signatures had been submitted to the City from over 1200 residents supportive of Bellingham adopting a Sanctuary City ordinance.

Text of petition which community members signed in support of a sanctuary ordinance

Public records show support for civilian oversight

It is particularly notable that there was nothing in the public records provided to me, containing either written communications that Council Members had received since the vote on the ordinance in February 2017, or any memos making note of phone calls or messages people had directed to Council Members, specifically voicing opposition to civilian oversight of law enforcement in regard to immigration-related practices or racial profiling.

What did show up in those records though, were postcards sent primarily in early June 2017 reinforcing the desire of community members for civilian oversight and/or for strengthening the protections offered in the City Council’s ordinance they had passed that February.

Because I had reason to believe Council Members had been receiving contacts opposed to civilian oversight of law enforcement, I sent an email to Alison Henshaw who was handling my records request for the City of Bellingham.

In my May 9, 2018 email I asked,

“Can you please check with the City Council Members, and particularly Council Member Barker, to see if they can find any emails they may have received that were either anti-immigration, opposed to sanctuary city, or opposed to citizen oversight regarding immigration practices by law enforcement after February 16, 2017?”

Ms. Henshaw’s May 10, 2018 response to that question, stated:

“With regard to the e-mails, I am confident that the search performed with the keywords and the time-frame you supplied came up with those responsive to your request and I have supplied those to you.”

Thus, it seems in this case, no further records could be uncovered.

Meanwhile, in my same May 9 email to Ms. Henshaw I had also inquired about the postcards sent to Council Members which were supportive of a civilian oversight board and/or strengthening the Council’s ordinance.  It was my understanding that the number of postcards that I had received in my records request was less than the number that had been mailed to City Council Members.  In response to my question about this, on May 10, Ms. Henshaw replied:

“I checked with staff in the Mayor’s Office and City Council about the postcards.  Apparently, there were some that were not scanned because they were stuck inside some pages of a correspondence file, so I’m attaching those now.  Our apologies.”

Examples of postcards sent to Bellingham officials (most, in June 2017) in support of stronger protections for immigrant and undocumented members of the community. Click on any image to enlarge, and to page through other enlarged images

Thus, I did receive approximately 20 additional scanned copies of postcards to add to the number of other scanned postcards I had already received from COB that supported, in general, more accountability measures being provided for law enforcement and other city employees regarding any interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents that would transpire.

The total number of postcards provided me was around 70. Again, this compares with no documentation having been provided of any communications opposed to such measures  that were received by Bellingham City officials after February of 2017. Of the records I received, there was only one email the whole year of 2017, and after the date of February 16, 2017, that had voiced opposition to Bellingham being a sanctuary city.

Council Members throw up obstacles to protective actions

The confusion that had been expressed by Council Member Barker about whether community members and organizations were united in their desire to have a civilian oversight board – which should have been cleared up by a hearty showing of postcards to the contrary – has been only one of numerous road blocks faced in the campaign for local protections for immigrants and people of color.

Other public records revealed that it took quite a while for Council Member Michael Lilliquist to be convinced that there was anything that could or should be done in terms of putting forward any kind of protective ordinance for members of the community who were immigrants or who did not have documented U.S. citizenship. Unfortunately, while commendably communicating with his constituents, he also exported his position to constituents in numerous email responses spreading the impression that there were already good protections in place and on occasion dismissing reasons for public concern regarding President Donald Trump’s looming pursuit of persecuting immigrants with the goal of deporting those without documentation.

In one November 20, 2016 email Council Member Lilliquist wrote:

“I also think we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. If the new administration does try to ‘deputize’ local government to enforce its immigration policies, you will see a definite backlash. My guess is that, like Mr. Trump’s proposed wall, the idea is unrealistic, demagogic rhetoric and little if anything will happen. As much as I hate the idea of a politician breaking their clear promises and/or lying during the campaign — I for one am glad to see this new president fail to act on his words.”

Yet, months after this statement by Council Member Lilliquist and his ultimate vote to approve an ordinance that displayed reluctance to hold city employees accountable,  we see pages upon pages of fresh news reports about ICE raids, along with government and judicial actions that are resulting in the imprisonment of many immigrants, some with legal status, whether or not they have criminal records, and sometimes indefinitely.

Screenshots of excerpts of results returned of a google search on “ICE immigration” on May 22, 2018

Other obstructions to moving forward with full and accountable sanctuary city status were thrown up by City Council Member Gene Knutson who, according to public records, was clearly opposed to the label of “Sanctuary City” for any ordinance being considered. However, his opposition to the label did not stop with his writing email after email to his fellow Council Members and constituents implying, and sometimes asserting, that the issue of sanctuary cities was toxic, while vehemently urging any resolution or ordinance should steer clear of the title.

In his emails, Council Member Knutson also wrote comments to constituents, such as, “Thanks for the e-mail, I agree with you we should never become a sanctuary city. This came up years ago and we said no, I hope we say NO again.” Another email he wrote to a member of the public read, “I agree with you we should never become a sanctuary city. Thanks for the e-mail. Encourage others who feel the same way to lets [sic] us all know.”

In the end, Council Member Knutson did support the February 13, City Council ordinance – which did not use the words “Sanctuary City” in its title. But it is baffling and unacceptable that he would be willing to work against providing effective protections for immigrants in the community who were clearly feeling threatened, simply to avoid what could have been a controversial and confrontational issue under some particular circumstance.

I reached out to Whatcom County Council Member Barry Buchanan to ask him about City Council Member Knutson’s reference to the event regarding the issue of sanctuary city that happened “years ago.”  Council Member Buchanan had similarly referenced an event that happened in 2009 when he was speaking in a July 2017 County Council meeting regarding a discussion about Whatcom County providing needed protections for immigrants. In that meeting he had said that, what he called a huge hearing held in 2009, was “very divisive.”  In his May 12, 2018 email response, Council Member Buchanan informed me: 

“What I can tell you is that it was a public forum on the matter of a sanctuary city for war resisters and had nothing to do with undocumented immigrants.  It was held at Bellingham Municipal Court and there was a huge overflow crowd.”

Of bravery and action

So here we are, 66 weeks after that February 13, 2016 Bellingham City Council meeting, no further down the road of having our representatives in Bellingham and Whatcom County providing provisions for accountability regarding protections for immigrants, including citizen oversight of our law enforcement regarding collaboration with ICE and racial profiling.

Week 67 is on its way, and on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, an NWDC Resistance* press release announced that Maru Mora-Villalpando, who had spoken at that City Council meeting back on February 13, 2017, had appeared for a follow-up deportation hearing. Ms. Mora-Villalpando was seeking “an order requiring ICE to produce its officials for questioning under oath and asking the judge to terminate her deportation proceedings as unlawfully begun.”

The press release went on to report:

“Despite the United Nations expressing concern about ‘an increasing pattern of intimidation and retaliation against people defending migrants’ rights in the US’ and an NPR report highlighting over 20 immigrant activists targeted by ICE under the Trump regime, the immigration judge has sided with ICE. They have denied Mora Villalpando’s motion to terminate, and rescheduled her deportation proceedings to June 26th.”

Ms. Mora-Villalpando’s situation is one type of harassment and persecution that community members, many of them without documented U.S. citizenship, had been trying so hard to prevent happening to residents of our community by bravely coming forward in 2016 to take the action of bringing their ordinance to their government representatives. But so far, our representatives have failed their community members and their constituents in honoring these brave efforts.  Therefore, we are all left with continuing on with that shared responsibility to be brave, continue taking our own action, and to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Here was a closing portion of Ms. Mora-Villalpando’s public comment at the February 13, 2017 City Council meeting. Speaking to the Council Members she had said:

“It’s up to you to be as brave as we are, to stand here in front of a bunch of racists and anti-immigrants to say we’re undocumented. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay. And we are not afraid.  We hope that the brave people that have come before you many, many times, can give you that braveness that you need.”

Week 67 – without civilian oversight and accountability for city employee actions resulting in immigration enforcement – is on its way, and we are looking for that bravery to show itself in Council action, and without further delay. See you, Monday, at the Dignity Vigil at Bellingham City Hall.

*”NWDC Resistance is a volunteer community group that emerged to fight deportations in 2014 at the now-infamous Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA. NWDC Resistance is part of the #Not1More campaign and supported people detained who organized hunger strikes asking for a halt to all deportations and better treatment and conditions”

One thought on “Overseeing the fight for civilian oversight to protect immigrants and people of color in Bellingham / Noisy Waters Northwest

  1. Pingback: June Immigration Actions – Riveters Collective

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