October 13, 2019 Dena Jensen
On October 1, 2019, Whatcom County Council, meeting as the County’s Health Board, received an update from the Public Health Advisory Board (PHAB) and a presentation from the Health Protection for Immigrant Families Task Force. The task force had made recommendations to PHAB in accordance with the County Council’s Resolution 2018-050, “Health Protection for Immigrant Families,” passed by the Council in early December 2018.
The document resolved, in part, that:
“The Health Board will further ensure that, ‘compassionate approaches’ are built into all public health related services and contracts including human services programs and;
“The Public Health Advisory Board shall convene a task force as provided for in WCC 24.01.051.A.4 to evaluate existing systems and support services for families impacted by the threat of deportation including access to health care, mental health, housing and other social services considering cultural, safety and language barriers preventing access.”
In short, the Health Protection for Immigrant Families Task Force, which was created by PHAB with the blessing of the County Council, made recommendations to the Public Health Advisory Board, and then that body, went on to make recommendations to the County Council Members on the Health Board at their October 1 meeting.
However, the recommendations of the task force and those of PHAB were not the same. Basically none of the recommendations of the Health Protection for Immigrant Families Task Force which requested funding, were included in the PHAB recommendations. And one of the two requests for funding that the PHAB did recommend, was for a program mentioned by Sheriff Elfo at the meeting, and for which the task force did not ask.
Meanwhile, after enduring the presentation of the deficient PHAB recommendations to the County Council Members, then task force members and other members of the immigrant community in Council Chambers — at least one of which was listening to the meeting through Spanish translation head phones — had to endure sentiments expressed by Council Member Tyler Byrd that were hostile to undocumented immigrants. Those sentiments included the ones below about immigration laws. As a heads-up before you read Council Member Byrd’s remarks, you should know that all the Council Members were alerted to the fact, during the presentations, that immigrants in Whatcom County pay $2.4 million in taxes. In Washington State in 2014, it was $2.4 billion.
Council Member Byrd: “So taking money that we don’t have and diverting it into other items that were supporting people who aren’t here legally, at the end of the day is, for me, kind of a non-starter, right? I think we have a lot of people here in our communities that are struggling everyday that we haven’t solved those issues and we have a right to serve them first and to fix those problems first before we take that money that their families have paid into the system, that they possibly have paid into the system, that generations before them and their neighbors have paid into the system, or their friends have paid into the system to help support them and get them back into a place where they have a healthy lifestyle, before we do that for someone who broke a law coming into the country.
“At the end of the day, that’s what it is. It’s, you broke a law. And for us, we, it’s not our place to decide the merits of a law. We don’t get to decide what law is right or what law is wrong. We have to uphold the law that is written, unless we are specifically re-writing that law. And unfortunately in this situation, we’re not rewriting a law. We don’t have the legal capacity to do so. And if we did, I would love to fix this problem.”
Additionally, regarding immigration law, Council Member Byrd made this remark, as well.
“But it’s again, not our job to decide what laws are right and what laws are wrong. Once a law is there, we either change it or it’s a law. And so, just like a felon in our community is a paying contributing member of the community, if they get picked up on a felony and a warrant, they still go to jail. We still have to abide by the law. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a felony for 30 parking tickets that you never paid, or if you have a felony because it’s first degree murder, or it’s because you broke the law coming into the country, those are all laws and we have to abide by the same laws.”
Almost all of the immigration statute is civil by nature, not criminal, yet here Council Member Byrd conflates it with felony offenses. That ruse aside, nearly all of Council Member Byrd’s observations seemed to be at odds with the “compassionate approaches” which the resolution the Council passed in December 2018, called on the Health Board to ensure.
Moreover, those community members that attended the meeting on October 1 were not made aware of the level of capricious discrimination in Council Member Byrd’s views on immigrants without proper documentation versus other types of people’s violations of law. This is something he would demonstrate just one week later at the Council’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting on October 8, 2019.
At that Criminal Justice meeting, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey gave a presentation which he referred to as a “state of the union” for his office. After Mr. Richey had spoken at length, Council Member Byrd had questions for him. His questions were regarding young people, of ages he described as being between 18 and 21 years, who had broken laws. He expressed he was concerned about the fact that subsequent to their arrest, they often have trouble with being able to do such things as rent a house or get certain types of jobs.
Mr. Richey had explained that for young people, currently all charges, except serious offenses, have the potential for diversion, under the law. He went on to say, “So, the prosecutor has great discretion to divert more cases than what we ever did. And that’s something that we employ and will continue to employ.”
After touching on the subject of types of diversion that could be offered. Council Member Byrd continued to interact with Mr. Richey:
Council Member Byrd: Is there any kind of decision-making – I mean, you don’t have to charge people in that kind of situation, right? I mean, an officer will bring something forward, but is there discretion on who you charge? Is there a process that you go through to determine whether or not that they should be charged?
Prosecuting Attorney Richey: Right, so there’s always discretion on who to charge from the prosecutor’s office. And it’s, I can tell you that a person won’t get any treatment or any benefit from a diversion program if we don’t charge them. So that’s, so cases typically get charged when they’re a drug case or something like that. It’ll be charged and they’ll go into diversion. But you know, there’s always discretion to charge or not to charge based on whether the facts support a crime and we often don’t charge. We won’t charge a case if we don’t believe we can win the case.
Council Member Byrd: Part of the thing I really struggle with, with this, is that all of these cases seem to have the same thing, that something happens, and sometimes feelings get involved, and all of a sudden every charge in the world that could ever be figured out is applied, and the child looks at the case and says, well, you know, I didn’t do that. But all of these other – we’re all breaking rules right now, I’m sure, for something, it seems like these days too, right? It’s like, they get thrown on and lumped on and now the mountain is so big that it’s not worth fighting that case, because if you lose, you lose on everything. And the likelihood is that you’re going to lose at that point and so then you’re conceding to something, even if it maybe wasn’t 100% accurate. So I think, that, in itself, is part of the problem. And I’m not – it’s something that I’m struggling with, because, like, I keep running into the same message from so many people that are good people that run good productive lives but just, they can’t get away from that same situation.”
So, for young people, discretion on charging and arresting people seems okay with Council Member Byrd. He seems to think a lot of people break rules, and he seems to fear overly burdensome or damaging consequences for young people due to laws they have broken. He seems to want to have actions taken to prevent consequences from being too harsh.
But for immigrants, not so much — in fact, not at all. For good immigrant people, living productive lives, and who can’t get away from federal laws that are utilized to target them, laws are laws, according to Council Member Byrd. And apparently he can see no room, in that case, for discretion or taking measures to prevent overly harsh consequences for what, in most cases involving immigrants, should be regarded as civil violations. That’s what traffic tickets are, civil violations – one of the kind of violations that young adults are prone to commit.
Moving on from Council Member Byrd’s contradictory thinking about the enforcement of laws and application of consequences, we come back to his railing against spending money on undocumented immigrant families. While he maintained he didn’t want to spend money on people who were here illegally, this was done in the face of being told more than once during the meeting that up to 95% of children, having one or more undocumented parent, are U.S. Citizens. That does not count all the parental units where only one partner does not have documentation. Nor does it count all the immigrants who are here legally, but just don’t have possession of their documents. Fellow Council Members also reminded Council Member Byrd that providing health services for immigrants protects the whole community, not just the health of immigrants.
All of the Health Board members present that day, except for Council Member Byrd — Council Member Brenner was absent — voted in support of the PHAB recommendations. However, just as painful as Council Member Byrd’s prejudicial remarks, was that failure of the Public Health Advisory Board to request program infrastructure and funding from the Health Board, for which the task force had made recommendations.
So it’s on all of us now to insist that these requests for funding not be further ignored. Here are selected task force requests that seem to have been ignored in full:
“Provide the infrastructure for health and human services providers to coordinate their services and create bridges for immigrant families to access care before, during, and after a crisis.”
“Reduce health impacts on children. Support school districts with funding and technical support to ensure services and referrals for immigrant families are provided year-round.”
Prioritize funding for housing and behavioral health for vulnerable immigrant families. Ensure that Whatcom County has a strategy to address the growing gap in basic health care needs.
“Help businesses and organizations establish “safe space policies” so that staff know what to do in case of ICE raids.”
Here is a link for a packet that contains a copy of the full “Health Protection for Immigrant Families In Whatcom County – Whatcom County Public Health Advisory Board (PHAB) Task Force Evaluation Report,” (starting on page 4) as well as the “PHAB Recommendations for Health Board Action Health Protection for Immigrant Families – October 1, 2019” (starting on page 36.): https://whatcom.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=A&ID=675973&GUID=35B5F33E-BEFC-41D9-9D98-5048F1AD4E9F
Here is a link to the audio recording of the October 1, 2019 Whatcom County Health Board meeting: http://whatcom.granicus.com/player/clip/201?view_id=1
Here is a link to the October 8, 2019 Whatcom County Council Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting: http://whatcom.granicus.com/player/clip/207?view_id=1
Here is contact information for the members of the Whatcom County Health Board members: