Don’t let Council Members confuse you about whether Bellingham is a sanctuary city / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access the July 15, 2017 Bellingham City Council Justice Committee meeting on YouTube

July 17, 2019 Dena Jensen

On Monday, July 15, 2019, Bellingham City Council’s Justice Committee met in Council Chambers at City Hall, with their one focus being, “Deliberation Regarding Work-Plan Items Related to Immigration.  I will work on publishing notes on this meeting soon. But first, I did want to draw people’s attention to a particular statement of City Council Member April Barker’s at that meeting. Council Member Barker serves on the Justice Committee, with Council Member Pinky Vargas, along with Council Member and Justice Committee Chair Hannah Stone.

Back in early June, the Riveters Collective began publishing videos of their endorsement interviews with 2019 candidates for local and state offices. I had been very frustrated with an answer given by Bellingham City Council Member, and candidate for Mayor of Bellingham, Pinky Vargas to one of the questions asked about Bellingham’s 2017 ordinance related to immigration.

In response to the question as to whether she believed that the February 2017 ordinance was a sanctuary ordinance, Council Member Vargas affirmed that she felt that the ordinance, “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.”

She went on to express that the ordinance may not make people feel like they are protected and speculated that this was simply because it wasn’t called a sanctuary ordinance.

I had put comments on Facebook where I saw the video posted, providing clarification of what my perspective was on the nature of that ordinance, and the title of the ordinance. Here is what I had said in a comment on the post of the video on Council Member Vargas’s Facebook campaign page:

“Council Member Vargas was on the City Council when community members had brought an ordinance forward to create needed protections for immigrants in Bellingham. There was not an insistence from these community members that a title for the ordinance include ‘Sanctuary City’ in it. 

“Council Member Vargas was aware that the name of the ordinance that members of the immigrant community would have used for their ordinance was the Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance. (The name of the ordinance that was just passed at state level was called Keep Washington Working and has been supported by many immigrant rights advocacy groups, along with the ACLU who had helped draft the Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance). 

“From my perspective as someone who has requested 2016 and 2017 public records from COB related to immigration, and who has been interacting with members of the immigrant community and immigrant rights advocates, if anyone has raised objections to the mere title of the City’s own ordinance that they approved instead of approving the Keep Bellingham Families Working ordinance, the objections have had to do the the fact that people believe the content of the ordinance which City Council Members put forward (and hastily voted on without continuing to work with their workgroup of community members to make it as strong as it was possible for it to be) does not support true sanctuary. 

“We just had an ICE raid in Bellingham in 2018. People were apprehended in the early morning hours, either at home or on their way to work. They were taken away from their family members. Some were incarcerated for months. Some were deported. All of this happened subsequent to the passage of the Bellingham City Council’s ordinance regarding immigration. Rather than the title of the City’s ordinance ordinance, this seems much more likely to be the reason that immigrants, undocumented peoples, and people of color do not feel safe living in Bellingham under the provisions of the ordinance regarding immigration that the Bellingham City Council voted to adopt in February of 2017.”

In contrast to Council Member Vargas’s response, I had much preferred the answer Council Member April Barker, also a candidate for Mayor of Bellingham, had given in her Riveters Collective endorsement interview to that same question about the February 2017 Bellingham City Council ordinance related to immigration.

Council Member Barker had said, “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.” After going on to explain some of the background of what was happening at the time related to immigration, as well as her motivation and efforts to learn about sanctuary cities and pursue an ordinance, she then went on to say:  

“…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?’”

I had appreciated Council Member Barker’s clear acknowledgement that this passive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that became an ordinance that the City had passed was “not a sanctuary ordinance.”

Fast forward to Monday’s Justice Committee meeting, however, and Council Member Barker somehow managed to retreat into an assessment of that ordinance similar to what Council Member Vargas had voiced in her Riveters Collective endorsement interview:

“And I’d like to see also, with the improved policy recommendations that we could talk about, an actual title to the ordinance ‘cause I have seen, I just fielded a lot of questions this weekend of like, why don’t you have a sanctuary policy? 

“And when I look at our policy compared to other places that call themselves a sanctuary city, it’s the same, if not, you know, more robust. And I think, just not having a title is very confusing with people…I think what I remember back was, sometimes it can be misleading to call it a sanctuary ordinance because folks, there might be a false sense of security because there are certain things we cannot control. So, that was what I remembered our discussion was, like, let’s just not give it a title. But with that, because of all of the media, it’s just so difficult to, it takes a long time to explain exactly why it’s not called that, but it really is that. And they’re like, well, why don’t you call it that?”

So, now Council Member Barker says it “really is that.” But it’s just not.

Just go to members of Community to Community Development, Raid Relief to Reunite Families, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, or the WWU Blue Group to see if they think Bellingham adopted a sanctuary ordinance in February of 2017. These are all organizations that Council Member Stone identified as being intertwined with impacted communities which the Justice Committee will be seeking input from as part of a workgroup to review, “An ordinance of the City of Bellingham, Washington relating to city policy with respect to immigration enforcement, equal protection, and equal provision of City services regardless of immigration status and creating a new chapter of the Bellingham Municipal Code regarding such matters.”

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