Some same old lines and some questionable progress on immigrant protection: notes on the 2/25/19 Bellingham City Council Justice Committee meeting / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access video of the 2/25/29 Bellingham City Council Justice Committee meeting

It’s been two full years since the City of Bellingham abruptly pushed aside the Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance in favor of approving their own ordinance regarding immigrant protection. In all that time there has been no amending of that ordinance or activation of civilian oversight or of a safe space to report discrimination or persecution.

On Monday February 25, 2019 the City of Bellingham’s Justice Committee met at 1:00 p.m. in City Council chambers at Bellingham City Hall and on the agenda was an item to “Review Ordinance #2017-02-008 and BMC Chapter 2.25.” Both documents are related to the City’s policies on immigration. Bellingham City Council Member Hannah Stone is Chair of the City Council’s Justice Committee, whose members include Council Members April Barker, and Pinky Vargas.

I attended the meeting on Monday afternoon, and also listened to the video recording of the meeting, and took some detailed notes regarding what was discussed:

Council Member Stone opened by saying she had decided, once she was appointed in January 2019 to the Justice Committee, to review the ordinance, passed two years ago, back in February of 2017, relating to City policy with respect to immigration enforcement, equal protection, and equal provision of City services regardless of immigration status. She said that a couple of things had sparked this. 

Council Member Stone said she had been approached by some community members to put together a declaration of human rights. She said she was supportive of this, but she felt this would be a set of promises the Council would be making, and she felt before that happened she wanted to go back to have some accountability and follow up about what the City had been doing or not doing and where everything was at.

Council Member Stone expressed that she had been asked, because of her background as an immigration attorney, to look at the ordinance that the City Council had passed two years ago, to see if they had done a good job or not. Council Member Stone then went on, not directly responding to the issue of the quality of the ordinance to say, “…I think the hardest part is that when we work within the law, and sort of ordinances and codes, there are very rarely absolutes. I know that the community would love for us to be able to draw a line and say ‘absolutely, under no circumstances would x, y, or z happen, and the reality is that that’s just not the world that we operate in. And so one of the things I also want to ask our community for, is that we were making a promise that we’re going to protect our residents and that we’re not going to cooperate to their detriment, unless there was criminal activity or certain triggers. And so, wanting to ask the community to trust that process and then call us on it when it’s not working.”

Council Member Stone then indicated she had some questions for the Mayor and City staff, but first checked to see if other committee members had  questions or comments. 

Council Member April Barker brought up that subsequent to the passing of the ordinance there had been “ICE activity in the community” last August. At a meeting following that, which she attended, she was under the understanding that community members were requesting that there would be a rapid response to this type of activity in the community to inform community members as to what happened, “from the city’s perspective,” such as letting people know if the police were involved, plus “any facts that we know that happened to any of our community members.”

Council Member Barker said Brian [Heinrich, deputy administration for COB] had agreed at that time that he could work toward something like that. She said maybe that was something the committee could hear back on, that day, “or in the future as it’s happening.”

Council Member Stone sought to clarify that this had been a motion to put in place a rapid response. Council Member Barker responded, yes, and that it was asking the Mayor to work with staff to develop a rapid response so that they have a little more reliability and people know where to go to get that kind of information.

Council Member Pinky Vargas said she had no questions but was glad the committee was reviewing this material to see how the City was doing and what improvements could be made.

Council Member Stone addressed Bellingham Police Chief David Doll to have some follow up at a future meeting regarding the issue of rapid response that Council Member Barker had mentioned. She indicated that there could be importance in cases where there is “ICE activity” in the community, to having transparency and accountability, and finding out what the level of involvement was, if any, by local law enforcement. She stated that part of the ordinance was that there wasn’t going to be any mandated report-out process every 6 months, for example, where the police would report context. But she said she felt that in respect to transparency and accountability it would be important to have those lines of communication “to know if any activity is happening in the community.”

Police Chief David Doll spoke and asserted that in regard to “the August event”  Bellingham’s Police Department did not participate, nor were they asked to participate with federal agencies. He wanted to remind everyone that BPD’s immigration policy is on their website and is the result of the collaboration they had a couple years ago where they received feedback from stakeholders in the community, and they made some changes at that time. He said BPD does not enforce civil immigration law. He said his foundational interest is in having a police department that anyone will come to for help. He said, “I don’t want any member of our community who’s undocumented to feel they cannot report a crime because that further creates victimization.”

Council Member Stone verified that the policy Chief Doll spoke of was Policy 417, which he confirmed. She said that she had the adoption date as 1/14/2016. She asked if it had been changed or updated since that time. Chief Doll answered that he did not believe it had been fundamentally updated until recently, when they had begun reviewing a change in a Revised Code of Washington (RCW) regarding U-Visas.

Council Member Stone said she wanted to know if there had been communication between Chief Doll and the City Attorney Peter Ruffatto, about policy 417 regarding civil an criminal federal offenses (417.4.3) where it says, “An individual who enters into the United States illegally has committed a misdemeanor (8 USC § 1325(a)). Generally, an alien who initially made a legal entry into the United States but has remained beyond what is a legal period of time has committed a federal civil offense. “  She said what some people may not know is that most of the immigration and naturalization action is also codified in the U.S. Code, so there are civil infractions and also criminal offenses that sort of mirror each other. So if there has been criminal activity in the community, and community members are not safe, then we would expect there would be action by law enforcement to keep the community safe. But when entering the United States without authorization is deemed a misdemeanor under federal code, her hope would be that this would not be something that local police would be enforcing. Therefore, she was wondering if there could be changes made to that policy (417.4.3) to specify that it would be criminal activity that’s also recognized in our state or municipal codes as a criminal activity.

Chief Doll wanted people to know that BPD works very close with the legal department, especially regarding that particular policy. He said he was more than happy to work with the legal department to make sure that language “clearly reflects that we will enforce criminal law.” He emphasized again that Bellingham Police are not trained to enforce immigration law. They do not need or want that training. He said, “I do not care about someone’s status, documentation as a  member of this community, or this country. I want them to come for help if they need help.”

Council Member Stone indicated she would follow up with Chief Doll if there was additional information that the committee would want back. She asked if Mr. Ruffatto had questions.

Mr. Ruffatto said he thought the statement that is in that policy has been there a long time and wasn’t really looked at that closely. In his estimation he suspects that the act of crossing the border has never been viewed as something that the Bellingham Police Department enforces. He thinks the fact that this is a statement of law -understanding that it may cause some concern – that they could work with BPD on that. He said that it’s always a challenge whether they carve out specific things they know are not of concern to this department. He expressed that the dilemma was whether you carve something in or do you carve something out.  Would BPD be interested in assisting federal agencies in what is a serious federal felony, for example? It’s a challenge on whether they make exceptions, or whether they say these are all they are going to enforce. He felt they can work with the police department on that. He mentioned there may be things in certain parts of that code that may be part of the same federal code, trafficking for example, that they would want their police department enforcing. That’s why they would need to sit down and look through that.

Chief Doll spoke to say he would have concerns about prohibiting the City’s cooperation with federal investigations on something like Net Nanny, where last year they arrested 21 people who were prowling the internet to have sex with children and they weren’t just prowling, they showed up. He said they have training going on right now in their training room with people all across the U.S. and Guam to learn about internet crimes against children. He emphasized how horrific it was. 

Chief Doll indicated he did want to be careful about the language they used because there are federal assets that BPD uses to help them do their work in enforcing criminal law.

Council Member Vargas brought up that there are challenges because the general public doesn’t really understand all the different government agencies an how they are connected and who is responsible for what. She asserted people look to the City Council or the police force to give them clarity around what’s happening and they often assume different agencies are all connected. While there are connections in some ways, she said the federal government doesn’t necessarily communicate when they want to do something in the City of Bellingham. 

Council Member Vargas said she thinks this is something that is not always obvious to the general public. She gave the example that one of the things that has been happening with the local homeless shelter is how the City communicates about what their involvement is, what their responsibility is or how they are tied to a situation. She said that’s been occurring in a couple different areas. 

Council Member Vargas pointed out that the City does have a communications person but often the media does not share that information so the information doesn’t always become public. She said she wanted to suggest that the City find a way to up their social media communication. That way when something important happens, they can put it out there. She said social media is how people communicate and it’s how people are getting their information.

Council Member Vargas said “for what happened in August” that the City is often doing the work that they need to do but people don’t often understand how that relates to City officials. She recommended clarifying when such things happen, like what happened with “these arrests in August,” what City officials’ involvement is, or what their non-involvement is, and how they are doing things.

Council Member Stone thanked Council Member Vargas and said her suggestions tied in with Council Member Barker’s comments about rapid response communications. She then brought up the issue mentioned by Chief Doll of community members bringing their complaints forward and deciding if there was a need for an ombudsman’s office. She said she had heard that the Mayor had indicated there would be movement forward for safe spaces and an independent third party to help field complaints and act as an advocate and liaison when there are concerns or complaints that come forward. 

Council Member Stone said she wanted to check where things were at on this type of program and mentioned that she recognized that this would be a pilot program, so if it wasn’t utilized or if it wasn’t meeting the need, then this was a first step and there may be more steps to be taken.

Mayor Kelli Linville said she had checked with Brian and the RFP is in the works. She said the move [of Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center’s offices] and bad weather may have slowed down her watching over the process, meanwhile it is her intent that it happen. She said she was very concerned about it, to begin with. 

Brian Heinrich of the Mayor’s Office confirmed the Mayor was correct and that he was hopeful to have that contract with Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center (WDRC) this week. He said “it’s in Purchasing’s domain right now.” As of the 2019/20 budget approval, that is when there was the budget authority to move forward. He said he had the chance to speak with Moonwater briefly that morning and things are still on track. Work has been done in preparation for completion of the contract which is the last sort of piece to put together. Once that’s in place, then they will continue to move the program forward.

Council Member Stone wondered how the public would be notified when the program was up and running. 

Mr. Heinrich said the Mayor’s Office would be putting together a communications plan in concert with the WDRC. He thought that Council Member Vargas’s point was a good one in respect to the communications team that they have with the City, they can use their channels to announce that. He said there was also a need for some signage or some effort with the front line staff to direct folks to that resource when it’s available. 

Mayor Linville said they had been stressing more Facebook and social media. They have a City-wide communication and Vanessa [Blackburn] has been training people in each department. She said if they don’t have the information to transmit, then they can’t transmit it to the public. So it’s important to make Vanessa aware of what’s going out from the departments. She said there are always improvements that can be made. She said she will follow up again with Vanessa about all of this. She said they would need to know things, like from the police: “we had an ICE activity,” or whatever we’d like to let the public know, and who’s going to do that, whether it’s in-house police, or city-wide, or whatever. She indicated internal communication is important.

Mayor Linville said she had stressed to police officers and others, that the City does not enforce immigration law over here by itself. She referred to Peter Ruffatto brining up the subject of trafficking and, she said of course they were going to protect children. But as far as just stopping someone and asking their immigration information status or if there is a concern asking someone their immigration status, if you find out we’re doing that, someone better let her know because the direction is, we are not doing that. She wanted to be clear that there’s no trying to get around that.

Council Member Stone said this is obviously what the community wants to hear. She said that keeping promises like that in check is dependent on the community coming forward and filing complaints. She said that is why it’s so critical that they move forward sooner rather than later, even though it may not be the full answer, through the WDRC, having areas for people to come forward and spaces they feel safe. She noted, even if they were to say a space was safe and feel it was safe, but if the people who need the resource to be open don’t feel safe in going to that space, then they are not doing their job fully. She said there was a need for people to trust that process and come forward.

Mayor Linville mentioned she made it clear that this was an important thing for her at the beginning of this whole thing. She said it was important for people who might be unhappy with how they are doing it to know, that the administration wants to know, whether they feel comfortable going to them or dispute resolution or doing an ombudsman, or whatever might happen in the future, that they are continuing to say that the position of the City is that you don’t have to be afraid to come to me and say that there is a police officer or anyone who has violated my rights. She said that that’s a difficult thing for an elected official to know, but she understands.

Council Member Barker offered that she thinks there’s a real chance to build partnership and collaboration and efficacy in the process that Brian was talking about with rolling out the safe spaces. She said he did touch on all the standard, typical ones, but knowing all the communities and how that filters down, that they have wonderful partners in the community with Community to Community, with Bellingham School Districts and their family engagement, that really would, if you went specifically to them and say, we really are looking for help to know we’re doing exactly what we said we’re going to do, and then reaching out into the populations where people are talking to them to make sure that they know about it.

Council Member Barker said she appreciated the Council Member Vargas brought up their traditional ways of going about it, but she would appreciate if the Mayor would work with staff to focus in on those people who have access to those communities to make sure that that’s expressed and that they know where they can go seek that. She thinks that those are great opportunities for them to start building collaboration and partnership.

Council Member Vargas said maybe this was something they could ask Monet [sp?] to do, once the contract is open to communicate to all these agencies and let them know that this service is out there in order to start building the awareness, so that it’s available, that they can start figuring out how large the need is for that communication.

Mayor Linville said she thought that was a great idea. She said it would be good to use every opportunity to put things out there. She said it is the City’s responsibility to do it though, also. She said with Western students, they knew that they were uncomfortable reporting their rental registration because of the unintended consequences of them reporting something, so she is working with Chris Rosselli [sp?] at Western to say: can the University be a receptacle for the students so they don’t feel like they have to challenge their landlord if anything happens. She thinks they could do that on this also. She said it takes all of the officials and that someone might be more comfortable telling Community to Community what they think, and her door has always been open for that information. She said they had some disputes about what an oversight board should look like and things like that, but that has nothing to do with protecting peoples’ safety in reporting things that are going on.

Council Member Barker said originally they had started with talking about some policies subject to administration and the Chief of Police had sounded like they were reviewing those, so that might be something good for a future agenda item. She wondered if there were any more questions from this committee that they might be able to look at, such as what Council Member Stone had brought up, so maybe the Chair could follow up with that.

Council Member Michael Lilliquist said he wanted to speak about something that had come up regarding Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center and safe spaces. He said it’s known that they are not the be-all end-all because people have told them that, and that they had been delivered a report that there was a certain key function that they would not be able to deliver. He was concerned that it would be misleading if the City said they had created a solution to that problem because that solution would be least capable when it’s most needed, when the worst kind of allegation that needs to be taken seriously is the one case where the dispute resolution center’s services won’t be appropriate. He still thinks they need an ombudsman’s function, in addition. 

Council Member Lilliquist said he also wanted to mention that there was something when this draft ordinance came forward the first time, that he had asked for before it was developed, and it wasn’t in there. He thinks it’s one way the ordinance can be strengthened, and that even though they say that they don’t intentionally ask or inquire or investigate, there is certainly opportunity that the employees and law enforcement will become incidentally aware of someone’s immigration status. He said that may be fine, but that should not be recorded, because if we record in their records that information, then that information is discoverable in a way they don’t want it to be discovered. Even though they say they are not going to share it, if they create it, it is discoverable and potentially they can be compelled to share it. So he felt they could strengthen the ordinance in a couple ways, by adding language to avoid that incidental recording of information, which we do not have any need to record, which may put people at risk, the people they are trying to protect.

Council Member Stone closed the meeting saying this is the beginning of a conversation and is the work that will be going forward, and that there would be follow up.

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