Notes from the 7/1/19 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting regarding an immigration workgroup / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access the Facebook event for the 7/8/19 Monday Dignity Vigil

July 6, 2019 Dena Jensen

During Old/New Business at the July 1, 2019 evening Bellingham City Council Meeting, Council Member Hannah Stone made an announcement regarding the formation of a workgroup, connected to the Council’s Justice Committee, focused on immigration issues.

This has been a request from those attending weekly Dignity Vigils, and others, who are seeking an ordinance from the City that will offer sanctuary to all people regardless of their immigration status. The announcement that Council Member Stone made describes the initial scope of the workgroup in fairly clear terms.

However, in the discussion about putting together a workgroup during the Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting that day, the direction the Council might head, in putting such a workgroup together, or at certain moments during the meeting, if there would be an actual workgroup at all, was not so clear. To help people be more informed of individual Council Member’s input on the subject I am including notes in this post on that daytime discussion between the Council Members.

I assume some latitude must be given to Council Member Stone as the Chair of the Justice Committee to take in advice of Council Members in committee and then make her own decisions on putting together needed resources for decision making, such as the workgroup she stated will be put in place. This would explain the additional clarity regarding the workgroup at the evening Council meeting. The discussion during the day had been closed by Council Member Stone saying they would discuss the formalities of the group at the Council’s next Justice Committee meeting.

First, here is Council Member Stone’s statement regarding the workgroup from the City Council meeting :

“Okay. So, I will be more succinct than I was this afternoon. But I wanted to, especially with Dana Brigg’s comment this evening, just to mention that, before the Justice Committee, that we will be moving forward with a workgroup that’s sort of three-fold. One, to address public safety issues that have come to the surface again related to increased federal enforcement surrounding immigration laws.

“The second is, regarding implementation and compliance with the new Senate Bill 5497 which establishes statewide policy to support Washington State’s economy and immigrants role in the workplace. And then the third is to review the language of our ordinance that we passed in 2017 and chapter 2.25, which is equal protection and provision of services regardless of immigration status. 

“And so, in light of changes over the last couple years to review that language, as well. So that will be coming forward.

“And also, just to highlight what Chief Doll mentioned this afternoon, which was that the Sumas police department during the last What-Comm meeting has decided they will be joining What-Comm dispatch, hopefully this coming fall. So that will remove all of the, or will join I guess all of the municipalities dispatched for BPD locally here under What-Comm and out from the Customs and Border Patrol protection branch.”

Notes from the Committee of the Whole discussion regarding a potential workgroup related to immigration issues

Click the graphic to access the YouTube video of the 7/1/19 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting discussion about a workgroup related to immigration

The discussion of a possible workgroup related to immigration issues begins at around 21:20 on the YouTube video of the July 1, 2019 Committee of the Whole meeting. Council Member Gene Knutson was not present at that meeting. Below are my notes:

Council Member Stone:

There have been reports of increased immigration enforcement efforts across the country and we have no ability to know what communities would be targeted.  In response to the ordinance the Council had previously passed, and the adoption of policy 2.25 (https://bellingham.municipal.codes/BMC/2.25.010), and having been contacted by members of the community in Bellingham, and not in isolation, members of the undocumented community, families, and business owners, employers, and churches – there is a ripple effect whenever some grand announcement is made about increased immigration enforcement. There is a palpable fear that permeates throughout the entire community. 

One of the proposals or requests for the Council is two-fold. One is that Council had previously passed an ordinance that was putting forth in the findings that desire to make sure that public safety and protection of all community members, regardless of immigration status was going to be a priority. 

Also there was recent passage of SB 5497 at the WA state legislature, which was to keep Washington families working. Through that legislation there’s going to be additional policies coming forward from the state. Council Member Stone’s request was to have the Council create a workgroup or formal advisory group to keep a tab on those issues as the Council moves forward with implementation of additional policies to make sure Council is in a position to respond.

One of the concerns that Council Member Stone has with the current ordinance and the constantly moving rhetoric from the current federal administration, is that we have a lot of exceptions for when someone is defined as a criminal within the immigration laws. 

She understands the need for public safety and for the ability of law enforcement to react whenever there is criminal activity. But with there becoming specific points in the law that criminalize crossing the border without authorization— that action becoming a criminal misdemeanor — it could make most of the exceptions that the Council has outlined in their ordinance fairly empty. 

This is because, in effect, everything could be criminalized, so that exceptions could be invoked in any way, shape, or form. She wants to ensure that the importance in the words coming forth from the Council’s resolutions and ordinances clearly represent guidelines the community can rely on as to whether government agencies will or won’t be cooperating with immigration on a federal level.

Council Member Stone is seeking input and support from Council Members on whether this should be a workgroup or a formal advisory group. She is also seeking support from City Legal staff and the police department to make sure all voices are coming forward in this group. She asked if anyone had questions.

Council Member Michael Lilliquist:

He felt that when the issue first came up the Council had to thread very difficult territory to try to do what they did. They may not have done everything they could have done or done it the way they should have, exactly right. Therefore he is happy to convene a group of people to see what the Council might do differently. 

Council was originally responding to an administration that was operating unlawfully as well as just plain awfully. Council Members tried to thread a legal needle and he thinks they should now look back at that. He appreciated Council Member Stone’s remark that the Council wants to protect the community as much as they can but they don’t want to offer false assurances. The City can’t guarantee what federal agents will do or won’t do. 

But what can we do?  

Council Member Lilliquist interpreted that Council Member Stone had said strictly speaking you might interpret the City’s code as saying there might be federal criminal activities that may get through one of the loopholes, due to the way Council wrote the ordinance.  He said he had always been under the impression, perhaps falsely, that when they had said criminal they were referring to criminal acts under the Washington penal code. He said maybe they didn’t say that, and maybe they could have or should have said that. 

These are the type of issues that Council Member Lilliquist would like to feel more sure about. He would support an investigation and a group to do that work.

Council Member Pinky Vargas: 

She appreciates Council Member Stone bringing this up. She thinks they do need better definition. When Council went through that process they didn’t go to such depth. 

She is curious if they could handle this in the Justice Committee and allow different community members, and obviously the police department and the legal department to be involved.  She is wondering if that’s a process they could go through in the Justice Committee, if that would be a place to start. Or does Council Member Stone really believe it needs to be a separate community entity before it comes to Council? She is curious.

Council Member Stone:

Her response is that she just wants to make sure that certain key players are at the table and to make sure that the ask is extended beyond the Justice Committee to staff and the City to participate in those discussions. That’s where she is not sure that her request alone, as Chair of the Justice Dept., would be sufficient to bring all of those parties to participate in those discussions or if a formal work group would be needed.

Council Member Bornemann:

He wanted to clarify what Council Member Stone was looking for, if she was wanting a workgroup, or if the Justice Committee would be sufficient, or if she needs a special workgroup from the Council to work with her on that. He just wasn’t clear exactly what Council Member Stone wants.

Council Member Stone:

She asks if she can make a request of Chief Doll and of Legal staff as well. [Addressing them] She says she doesn’t know where this would go. She was just wanting to make sure there was a platform to have a conversation and also a group to turn to if there are enforcement efforts happening in our community and we need to have a communication mechanism to do outreach to the community. She wants to make sure that group is formed.

Council Member Stone does not know if the Justice Committee would be conducive or appropriate for members of the staff to make a commitment to be present.

Bellingham Police Chief David Doll:

He said absolutely he would participate. He has addressed the Council and the community many times on the issue of immigration enforcement. He always says it is his foundational belief and desire that the City has a police department that is accessible to all members of the community. He says the police department does not care about immigration status, because if they do then that limits their accessibility, which results in the potential for increased victimization.  

Chief Doll thinks they have taken efforts in the police department – he has looked back in reports through 2017 for this meeting – to say that the department does not have any incidents where they have been asked to hold someone or the police department held somebody because of immigration issues.

Chief Doll said they have worked with the feds in terms of human trafficking.  Through Net Nanny and through recent prostitution stings that they have had in the community, because these are people who are being trafficked for sex, the department does work with their “federal partners” to get them the services that they need to get out of that trap.

Chief Doll says he has no interest in having police officers serving immigration laws or enforcing immigration laws. He says one of the cool things that’s happened most recently is that at a recent What-Comm Board meeting they discovered that Sumas Police Department will most likely be a member of the What-Comm user groups, which means there will be no municipal law enforcement agencies in Whatcom County dispatched by the Border Patrol. He thinks that’s a win for the community and for people that need help.

He would be more than happy to participate in looking at the House bill and looking at policies to make sure the police department is accessible to everyone.

Council Member Lilliquist: 

He thinks ordinarily it would make sense to run this through the Justice Committee. But since this is not an ordinary situation it might be more comfortable for community members to participate if they were not in committee. The Council is slow moving, so he thinks an ad-hoc work force that includes Council Members might actually be a better process and might move forward at a better pace.

COB Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich:

After he, Council Member Stone, and Mayor Linville met around a week or more ago, he followed up with Chief Doll and they were going to come back to Council, probably in the Justice Committee on August 19 and talk about citywide and departmental policies related to – certainly immigration was one of those – but moreover the provision of City services. His question is 1. Would Council Member Stone still like them to do that? And he would offer regardless of how the discussion of immigration issues is done — in the Justice Committee or in a workgroup — from the City staff perspective, they are able and willing to participate and would like to be a part of the process.

Council Member Stone:

With respect to the other issues they discussed, that’s sort of separate and apart. Because it would stretch beyond the issues of immigration directly. So looking at the complaint systems that are currently in place within the City, if concerns come forward on behalf of any of our community members, and updates on the Safe Spaces with Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center and that initiative, she thinks that that would still go forward separately in August.

Council Member April Barker: 

She would definitely still like that to come forward, because as Council Members had learned in their last Planning and Community Development meeting, we also need to have the conversation especially around queer youth and the different programs that we have and how our staff was responding to youth. So she thinks that could go much further.

Council Member Barker agrees with Council Member Stone that immigration could be part of it, but separated out. She thinks that within the way things are set up right now, Council Member Stone can develop a workgroup. It would be better as a working group, for now, of the Justice Committee is what she would like to see. 

She usually likes to see everything taking place in Council Chambers but she is assuming Council Member Stone is going to want to have community members that maybe don’t have proper documentation, to be able to get a true feeling of where that’s at. So that might give a little bit of buffer to still have that engagement, where it might not be appropriate to have it on camera. 

She thinks she could still see it working the way it did with rental protections and things, having a group down here [she indicated an area below where Council Members were sitting] when you bring forward larger ideas on things that Council needs to chew through a little bit more. That way the community can get more information. 

Council Member Barker knew there was some activity last weekend around Immigration and Customs Enforcement and one of the suggestions, and she imagines this might be something that comes out of it, is some folks that are in that community wanting a really simple document to let people know what their rights are in that moment, and that if something were to happen with a police officer, they’d know what to say and they’d know who to call  They’d know those specific things. And there’s people who want to go out there and do that education.  So maybe that’s something that could come out of this.

Council Member Barker says she is supportive and will help Council Member Stone in anyway possible. She doesn’t think [looking toward administrative or legal staff] in the City Charter there’s anything to stop from just developing a workgroup within your committee, right? She thinks you just ask the Mayor to be supportive. It sounds like the staff is supportive.

Council Member Stone:

Just for clarification going forward, if there is a working group, the difference between that being a working group within a committee, and some separate advisory group, what’s the difference in coming forward with concerns to be raised or recommendations to come forward? Is there a difference between that report-out or the follow-through in those two separate scenarios?

COB Attorney Peter Ruffatto:

Between an advisory committee and a workgroup, you have your committee structure.  You have a workgroup, and you have advisory groups. He would say they are all ultimately recommending to the full Council if there’s a full Council action to be taken. 

One thing he would recommend is to really definite clearly what the work and scope of the group is. He would recommend that they have a Justice Committee meeting to define that. He has heard concerns about what the federal agencies are doing. He’s heard about recent changes in state law. And he’s heard some specific potential criminal aspects of immigration code that maybe the existing ordinance doesn’t address. 

What he would recommend is that Council Member Stone should hear those specific numbers as to whether that has ever been something that our police department has been involved with on a cooperation level or anything else.  That will enable the Council to really scope out things. A workgroup is not a huge undertaking but it is something that usually lasts longer than a couple meetings and is to figure out a specific problem. 

Council Member Stone:

At the next Justice Committee meeting they will discuss the formalities of the group itself.

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