July 21, 2019 Dena Jensen
Due to my own time constraints and a desire to get some information out about this as promptly as I can, I am going to provide my notes in installments, on this July 15, 2019 meeting where Bellingham City Council’s Justice Committee discussed work-plan items related to immigration.
I feel it is important to provide a detailed accounting of what was said about this issue that is at the center of a crisis being experienced by immigrants in our own community, along with other impacted community members, due to the escalating enforcement of oppressive and damaging federal immigration laws in our country.
So here are my notes from approximately the first third of the meeting, up to about 00:15:00 on the video. Note that the full section of Council Member Barker’s comments is a direct transcript of her remarks that I had done earlier when working on another blog post. The notes on other committee members’ comments are a close approximation of what they said.
Council Member and Justice Committee Chair Hannah Stone:
Looking at work plan items related to immigration, in light of recent threats of increased federal immigration enforcement, community members have been calling on local leaders to explore ways in which Council can provide protection and maximize public safety for all residents in Bellingham.
After the meeting that day there would be a gap of about 5 weeks before Council would meet again on August 19, so there is a desire to have formal work plan items in place that can be addressed and started. That way, in August there can be some report out and some movement forward.
In the packet for that meeting there is a brief memo and a summary of the final report from the Senate Bill 5497, or Keep Washington Working that was recently passed in Washington. There was also a copy of ordinance 201702-008 which references the new Bellingham Municipal code chapter, 2.25. Additionally there is a copy in the packet of the Mayor’s office statement, signed by some Council Members from back in January 2017 with some questions and answers prepared by the City’s legislative policy analyst, Mark Gardener to give support materials and background for people who may not have been around in 2017.
And so looking forward, a request of Council may be to have some of Mark Gardner’s time going forward, with research. In addition, looking at a couple areas specifically: One, a needs assessment when public safety is talked about and the fear that exists in our community today. That fear permeates beyond what people think about as the undocumented population or people who are directly at risk for enforcement actions being taken against them. This affects families, and co-workers, and employers, as well as people who are documented, who actually have work visas, either who have temporary work visas, or who are permanent residents, but who are fearful that because of the color of their skin or language barriers, they may be swept up erroneously in enforcement efforts. The fear stems beyond the immigrant population.
This would be looking at some sort of a needs assessment that makes sure that information is brought forth from the community that is most impacted itself. Outreach can be done to communities that are very engaged in advocating already in our community, like Community to Community Development, and Raid Relief to Reunite Families, which is a group that was formed after the most recent raid back in August, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which is a local labor union specifically for farm workers, the Blue Group up at Western, Sterling Meadows – our housing for farm workers and immigrant communities. Also there needs to be outreach to community members who may not be connected with those entities but which are still impacted, so, thinking about the Bellingham School District and Meridian School District and other ways, other than Sterling Meadows and housing developments, to direct outreach in the community to try to really find out the basis of people’s fears and whether there’s perceived or real threats.
Looking at further policy development would be the second. Going back to look at the language of our city ordinance, which was 201702-008 and related city policies underlying that, whether that’s municipal code itself, or police policies which Chief Doll is already working to revamp, based on the passage of the recent Senate bill. There is a desire to make sure that the language in those pieces of legislation support the underlying intent.
The administration, the Mayor’s office and Chief Doll have said that the City is not enforcing immigration law in Bellingham. But there are some gaps, maybe not intended, but loopholes within the language that could be addressed and strengthened to make sure Council is doing what they can. There may be some limitations in that, however, there maybe some things that Council can affect and change and it should be made clear where those lines are. Council should be doing what they can to either partner with outside agencies or groups or also to advocate where they can. Council Member Stone stated:
“So I think that the local municipality could do a better job, rather than wringing our hands, or throwing up our hands and saying, ‘well, these are federal issues that are beyond the scope of our work, and so we don’t have any influence there,’ is advocating and sending letters of support and reaching out to, our local senators and representative to really advocate for immigration reform as it relates to, obviously, members of our own community.”
And then the final piece would be looking at accountability. Either, communication pieces: if there is activity within our city, what is, or should or could be the response of local leadership when there is action being taken within city limits? Also when the City is saying they want to provide safe spaces for people to reside or safe spaces where people can file complaints and receive assistance, making sure there is accountability and transparency in those processes and what’s available within the city.
Council Member Stone was looking for these things specifically in relation to immigration that day, but realizes it could branch out or overlap with other issues that come before the Justice Committee.
Council Member and Justice Committee Member April Barker:
“Just seeing if we maybe want to work backwards from the 1, 2, and 3 that you have in your memorandum because I think the 3 is something that we could do as a committee with little, with just Mark’s support if the Council was willing to give that.
“You working with another group, a group of folks like you talked about, to get some good policy direction of what you’re looking for and then maybe bring that into the committee like we did with the Planning Committee where we can sit with folks. You have very specific policy direction, staff, and do a work session in Council. That seems to me like something we can chew off sooner than later, and with that, I mean you don’t have to get a motion from us or anything, but if we all are in agreement, that to me would be really important.
“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. So that would be a good group to try to determine, not to give any – 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, I would like for you [talking to Council Member Stone], and I don’t know if you’re [talking to Council Member Vargas] in agreement but, to have that deeper work outside of here, and then bring in some of those key folks to talk to us about that and help us learn and then work with staff. Is that something that you might be willing to do?”
Council Member Stone:
She says absolutely. She appreciates Council Member Barker bringing up the title. Council Member Stone has reservations surrounding when places declare themselves a sanctuary city and then it can provide this false sense of security, like you have this bubble around you and that it could prevent federal enforcement from taking place within your borders. That’s not the case, so it’s important to make that clear. So reviewing the title and reviewing the content of the ordinance itself is important.
Council Member Stone still has the bullet points from the Keep Bellingham Families Working group that went through a list of concerns they had about the City’s ordinance. She believes some of the items are things about which more education or explanation need to be provided. Some of them, at least on initial review, may not be issues of contention, hopefully. But there are other issues on which Council could dig deeper and do more work. She is willing to take this on.
Council Member and Justice Committee Member Pinky Vargas:
She is in agreement with Council Member Barker’s idea. She thinks they should go through policy with people who are involved right now and see what their needs are. She likes Seattle’s Welcoming City policy. She thinks Council Members could talk to workgroup participants as to whether a “Welcoming City to Immigrants,” or something that sounds more descriptive of what the ordinance is, would be helpful. Another thing she would like to get out of the process is what kind of resources participants want, such as a help line or someone they can call when a situation is happening. Would this be something directed to 911 or is there something else that needs to be designated. The police department can be consulted as to how they would handle that. She feels they can work with these entities to find out things like who can community members call to say, “What are my rights? This is happening,” something that makes people have a sense that there are people looking out for them and so the City agencies have a better idea what is happening.
The safe spaces question has been going on for almost a year and people don’t really know where to go right now. Council Member Vargas knows this is difficult for the Council because they are working on the contract. She thinks it needs to be figured out what it means for the Council to either move it forward or do some sort of hybrid that allows a way for people to reach out or document what’s actually happening for them. One of the things Council Member Stone had said was that the Council doesn’t really have a fair assessment of what happening to their community. Part of it is anecdotal or hearsay. She thinks they need to have a much better idea of what’s actually happening. She knows there’s probably a reluctance to share. So how does the community get past that: maybe with bringing in groups talking to Council Members. Council Members need to figure out a solution regarding a place people feel they can go to get support. She would hope that they would feel that the executive branch and the City Council, that they can talk to them, but not everyone feels comfortable, so she thinks they need to find a solution to that.
Council Member Stone:
She appreciates that input from Council Member Vargas. She has been trying to figure out preemptively what some of those needs might be. But feels they need to speak to the communities directly about what needs there are, and then parse out what falls under the Council’s umbrella. What can they actually do, and do well, within the community? Developing partnerships may be necessary to accomplish goals or also providing resources may be necessary to direct people to where they can find that support.