Are Bellingham 2019 mayoral candidates watching ICE? / Noisy Waters Northwest

June 28, 2019 Dena Jensen

“If the person you are voting for does not have a very specific way of how they are going to implement the Keep Washington Working Act at the local level; if they are not in absolute agreement that they will fight for a sanctuary ordinance in Whatcom County; if they are not very, very clear that they will support sanctuary for undocumented families, they are not a progressive candidate.” – Rosalinda Guillen

At a Dignity Dialogue event on June 3, 2019, Community to Community Development (C2C) launched their We Watch ICE action in the face of dramatically escalating persecution of immigrants across the country. We Watch ICE is an effort to gather data from community members who suspect they are witnessing Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in our own communities. There is now a form on the C2C website,, that people can fill out with details they have observed about any potentially ICE-related activity.

Click the graphic to access the online form to fill out details about anything that you witness that you suspect is ICE activity

This topic and others were covered at the June 3 event that took place at First Congregational Church in Bellingham. In the 5th episode of Season 3 of C2C’s Community Voz radio show on KMRE, there was a discussion of that Dignity Dialogue, where C2C’s Executive Director, Rosalinda Guillen made the statement at the beginning of this post.

During the show, at around 38:00 on the recorded version, the conversation — which included Ms. Guillen, along with Maureen Darras and Liz Darrow, also from C2C — focused on other ways community members could take action here in Whatcom County. One of the things that was suggested was that people should show up at as many 2019 election candidate forums as they can, to ask the candidates questions about where they stand on this issue of sanctuary ordinance and what their plans are to get such an ordinance written, passed, and implemented.

During the early part of June, the Riveters Collective endorsement committee had conducted candidate interviews which they video recorded and posted to their Facebook page. One of the questions that each of the candidates for Mayor of Bellingham were asked by the committee, was about whether they believed Bellingham’s February 2017 ordinance related to immigrants is a sanctuary ordinance.

Click the graphic to access the Riveters Collective 2019 mayoral candidate endorsement interviews on the Riveters Collective Facebook page

I listened to the videos and transcribed the specific question asked of each candidate, along with their answers. The question for three of the candidates was exactly the same, but in the question to Mr. Fleetwood, there was another question that seemed to be added inadvertently, at the end, which was not included in the question to the other three candidates.

I am providing, below, the transcripts of each candidate’s responses on the subject of a local sanctuary ordinance to help people think of additional questions they might want to ask if they attend any in-person or online forums, or meet up with any of the candidates in other settings.

RC endorsement committee interview of Pinky Vargas at 8:00 on the video

Question: Do you believe Bellingham’s February 2017 ordinance is a sanctuary ordinance? Do you think it goes far enough to provide a safe and welcoming place for marginalized residents including immigrants, LGBTQ, persons of color, the homeless, and tribal members?

Pinky Vargas: So, wow, this is a very controversial question in regards to – everybody looks at this differently, considering whatever paradigm they’re coming from. If, when I think of the ordinance, I think it is very thoughtful and it is very robust and it absolutely carries out all the aspects that would be considered a sanctuary city in regards to protection and in regards to how we operate with government agencies, federal agencies. I believe it does all of those things in regards to protection. 

Does that make people feel like they’re protected? Not necessarily. And I think because it doesn’t say sanctuary city, it still makes, creates the perception that we don’t have the regulation. So even though the regulation was there, I think there’s still a feeling from people that maybe we didn’t go far enough, because we didn’t call it a sanctuary city. 

Now, I can’t speak for the rest of the Council, but I will speak for why I chose to not put the word sanctuary city in the ordinance and for me that was about the fact that, because of our president. And our president right now has made it very clear that he’s going to punish cities who say they are a sanctuary city. Now, we can go to court. We can spend our dollars on that. We can fight him, but we could all – so the question is do – if we get withheld from dollars because we are labeled a sanctuary city and the dollars that come to us are – one of the questions was about census, are related to how we get our money through the census, so, and often those affect people of particularly of low income or don’t have, disabilities and so a lot of that funding that comes from the federal government helps those communities who need it the most. 

So the question is, you know, was it more important to have the title or was it more important to have the protections and not get embroiled in legal battles or lose funding that we might lose because of that title. So, it’s a tough one because I want people to feel safe here. And there are times, that I’m like, would that, would the title make any difference to the regulation. No, the rules and the protections are there, but it’s about perception.

So what we could have done better is about communication and I think that that’s the area that we have kind of faltered. I feel like the regulation is strong. How we delivered it and how we talked about it and how we maybe addressed some peoples’ concerns, that leaves a little bit too be desired right now. So, there’s where I think we could have done a better job.

RC endorsement committee interview of Garrett O’Brien at 3:30 on the video

Question: Do you believe Bellingham’s February 2017 ordinance is a sanctuary ordinance? Do you think it goes far enough to provide a safe and welcoming place for marginalized residents including immigrants, LGBTQ, persons of color, the homeless, and tribal members?

Garrett O’Brien: Well, my understanding of the ordinance that was passed back in 2017 is that it wasn’t an official sanctuary ordinance. I think the policy has been to ask our police force not to inquire about immigration status for routine stops unless it’s a criminal reason. I don’t, I don’t support immigration status being checked with our law enforcement. 

I have a personal experience with this. I had a gentleman work for me for quite a few years and, he was a dry waller, and he didn’t show up for work one day. And I had a check for him for $3500.00. And that was very unusual. And so I tracked him down and tracked down his wife. They have four kids, Bellingham school districts. She doesn’t speak any English. He’s the sole breadwinner. He got stopped on some kind of traffic stop. It was an issue with a green card or some sort of expired – he had legal status but it had maybe expired. He got shipped to a federal detention center and was gone for eight months.

And, so I had to track down his wife. Get that money to her. She didn’t know where it was coming from, what it was about. And you know, we have, we have real issues to be focusing on in our community. I’m not – pulling families apart, it’s not a priority. It would not be a priority. So what we’ll be doing is working on finding ways to increase economic opportunities for people, create hope for people. We have a housing shortage. We have a, my priorities will be that fostering vibrancy in our community, building houses, and empowering our kids.

RC endorsement committee interview of Seth Fleetwood at 9:30 on the video

Question: Do you believe Bellingham’s February 2017 ordinance is a sanctuary ordinance? Do you think it goes far enough to provide a safe and welcoming place for marginalized residents including immigrants, LGBTQ, persons of color, the homeless, and tribal members? And if no, what would you add to make it meet the criteria of a sanctuary ordinance? 

Seth Fleetwood: Well, first off, I’m not an expert in this ordinance. I didn’t have the value. I’m very aware of the distinction between being an incumbent and not, because I’ve been in both roles. I’m not an incumbent right now. Of course when you’re in the midst of these initiatives, in this case, the creation of this ordinance, from a City Council perspective you have access to everything, really. And I don’t have the benefit of that.

But I know that the City Council, a lot of people who serve on the Council and who I very much respect, were trying to dice this thing as best they could. And I don’t know the precise pressures that were on them in their decision to craft it in a way where it, I don’t believe they used the actual term. I know they felt very much that it was, it met all the important aspects of it.

But I know a lot of the communities that were concerned about it and don’t think it’s a sanctuary ordinance, strongly disagreed. So, I suspect there’s something else that I wish I’d studied up on. I’m a lawyer. I pride myself in understanding the minutia. And I can’t do that on this one right now.  I should have anticipated this question. It’s a good one.

I think it didn’t go far enough in being absolutely insistent, and I’m sure I’ll get corrected on detail, but didn’t go far enough to insure protections in all regards.

So what would I do to make the criteria of a sanctuary ordinance? I can’t answer that. I know that, just aside from this is not, this is sort of – not meaningless – but as a citizen watching this thing from a distance, and this is so armchair quarterbacking, but it’s sort of a -jeez, a conventional old male metaphor – in your presence is a bad move. But I, what’s a better one? What’s another one? 

I recall thinking, you know, I think that we could have done a more conventional sanctuary ordinance. And maybe that’s, I’m sure the law enforcement folks and people might say that’s irresponsible and here’s why. But I just remember Trump during that period of time threatening sanctuary cities and I can’t believe that in the City of Bellingham, that was something they were concerned about. But maybe to some degree it was. But I recall thinking just as a citizen watching, I wish we’d gone full-on sanctuary city.

RC endorsement committee interview of April Barker at 12:00 on the video

Question: Do you believe Bellingham’s February 2017 ordinance is a sanctuary ordinance? Do you think it goes far enough to provide a safe and welcoming place for marginalized residents including immigrants, LGBTQ persons of color, the homeless, and tribal members?

April Barker: No, it is not a sanctuary ordinance. February’s ordinance was in response to – I had just become an elected official in 2016 and we had a change in leadership at the federal level. So I’d been told by some of our longtime Council Members that it was a very different first year coming into office than folks had mostly ever experienced. So that, the morning of the election – I’m an educator in the schools – and the impacts were severe, right away. As soon as I went to school, it was like, where’s so and so, so and so, so and so? And we knew what could potentially happen there. We weren’t as prepared as we needed to be.  And with the school district, worked rapidly to get about three hundred folks into a room. And Hannah Stone, actually our current Council Member, donated her time to kind of explain how government process works and it’s very slow and we need to make sure kids are going to school and you’re safe here.

I didn’t know if they were safe here, right? I didn’t know what the City had in place. So that next Monday I went to Council and said, okay, I’ve read about sanctuary city. I want to know what that is and is this something that we can do. And there was some memory of trying to do sanctuary city, but for a different purpose, around war and those that were not wanting to go to war. And so I just, I tried to like, anything that I could grab onto. I was, ‘okay, could I just have some staff time to learn about sanctuary city?’ and went through that process.

It was my first big thing that I was doing as a City Council Member and made a lot of mistakes in the process. I was trying to do that same thing of bringing an intersectional group together. But in the past I was doing it with a lot of controls in place and the people that I knew that were very supportive and this was very different. This was with, I can’t, you know, choose all the City Council Members and the Mayor, and so what we ended up with, what we could support in that moment was just codifying into law what our Chief of Bellingham already supported and had on the books. So, it wasn’t in law but it was in procedure, which procedure can be changed at any time. And so there was a procedure that recognized, and our Chief recognized that in order for communities to feel safe, they need to be able to report. And if they don’t feel like they can report, they won’t be safe. And we know that the most marginalized members of our community are often targeted and preyed upon. So we need them especially to feel comfortable reporting.

So this was a practice inside the City of Bellingham for quite awhile. What we did is take that practice that was a don’t ask don’t tell, I mean basically there’s no reason to be asking about your citizenship. We do not enforce civil federal immigration law and therefore that’s what that policy was. 

So we took that policy and then we codified it into law. And for me what was really important was that, and that was the only thing we could get to, was if something changes at the federal or the state level, and we have this on the books, we would be able to come back as a community and say, ‘well, do we want to change it to conform or do we want to fight what we don’t think is right at these other levels?’ If it’s just in policy or procedure, sorry, if it’s just in procedure, often times those rules change and the procedure just changes with it and we didn’t have to take a moment as a community and say ‘wait a moment.’ 

For my friends who have some precarious situations around documentation, I asked this question, like, so it we call it a sanctuary city, you know, does that make a difference to you? And a girlfriend of mine was like, ‘for me, no, it really matters on am I getting pulled over the same amount of times as you are and whenever I do or I go to the City Hall or whatever happens, are people asking me about my citizenship just because I have an accent or I look different. That’s what’s important to me. So when that is happening and it feels fair, that’s when I know you’ll be a sanctuary city.’ Right?

Sanctuary city is, it’s not a specific set of policies, it’s not a specific ordinance that you pass. It’s really a statement and a statement, whenever you do it as a community, you need to get very serious, and it’s not only policy, but it’s the procedure, and it’s the culture. 

And so, again, as a City Council Member, I can work with policy, but how that policy is implemented and how people are brought together to talk about it, is that the best that we can do? Are there things that we can move forward with? That is really, really important and that’s that leader, that’s that key executive, your Mayor, that works on those things to try to build the bridges to figure out what are those next things that we can do.

I think also, I wrote a letter and I called the Attorney General’s Office, but I would be in a very different position to work further. I really think that there’s a partnership there in all the statements that we’ve made as a state, to push further and say what are the things local municipalities can do? Because we’re kind of trying to pick pieces and put it all together. But what is like, what is a menu of options that we can do at like a municipality, a municipal level to make sure that we’re doing everything to still comply with the state and federal constitution, but build in these practices and policies? So I think that there’s a real partnership that we could explore.

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