Sanctuary City

Federal immigration policy comes to Bellingham


What: Bellingham City Council meeting on immigration policy

When: 7 pm Mon., Feb. 13

Where: Bellingham City Hall


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

In light of recent executive orders by President Trump, some people have expressed concern about adopting policies and practices associated with being a “sanctuary city,” while others are urging the City of Bellingham to be a safe and welcoming place for immigrants. How can we do this, and what does this mean for the residents of Bellingham?

America is a nation of immigrants. This is our strength. Except for those of us with native ancestry, all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty, symbol of freedom and opportunity, is a testament to America’s traditional embrace of newcomers.

The City of Bellingham has a standing policy that our police do not participate in federal immigration enforcement actions. We support our local law enforcement officers to stay focused on walking their beats, answering calls and preventing crime. We leave immigration enforcement to federal agencies, and we do not agree to become an extension of federal authority.

This hands-off policy is at the heart of what many people are now calling “sanctuary” cities. Even though the practice has been adopted by hundreds of cities and counties across the country, to many people it’s a new and controversial idea. More cities are adopting this approach. In Bellingham, it’s an established practice.

“Sanctuary,” as used in this context, means that local resources are spent on public safety, not on enforcing immigration rules. The City Council acknowledges there is a lot of passion around the subject of sanctuary cities. As current and immediate-past presidents of the Bellingham City Council, we’d like to share with you why we support this approach, and address some of the concerns we have heard.

Is it illegal? No. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Courts of law have repeatedly upheld the right of state and local governments to refuse to take on responsibility for federal law enforcement agencies. Justice Antonin Scalia said that such “commandeering” is prohibited, and based this opinion on the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Courts have also ruled that county jails are under no obligation to hold people suspected of immigration violations beyond their release date, based on a “detainer” from ICE. Such detainers are potential violations of the Fourth Amendment. That’s the basis of Whatcom County’s own “sanctuary” practices.

Will we lose funding for our city? Doubtful. Federal courts have said that the federal government cannot withhold funding based on requirements that were not clearly spelled out ahead of time. If the new president tries to impose demands after the fact, to take away funding, it would be government overreach and in violation of the law.

Immigrants are not a financial burden to the city. There’s no difference from a financial point of view. All residents pay the same sales taxes, utility taxes, gas taxes and property taxes. Our collection systems don’t know the difference between documented and undocumented immigrants, or native-born or naturalized citizens. Everyone pays the same rates, and drives on the same roads, relaxes in the same parks, checks out books from the same library, and receives the same water and sewer services from the city.

Will the city be harboring criminals?  No. A sanctuary city provides no refuge for criminals.  Anyone accused of a violation of the WA penal code will be arrested and held for trial. If convicted, undocumented persons can expect to be deported, as they have been for years.

Shouldn’t we just mind our own business?  Actually that is the current policy, to not become entangled in federal immigration laws. We reject efforts to use local police or any other city employees to investigate, arrest or detain people suspected of immigration violations. This “hands off” approach to immigration means that we provide the same police protection to all people in Bellingham without regard to immigration status or citizenship.

We want everyone, including the undocumented, to feel they can call 911 to ask for help or report a crime.

In response to the new urgency regarding immigration due to recent executive orders, the mayor and the city council have been examining our policies and practices, and are looking for ways to better document our commitments to the public. Many of these policies and practices go under the label of “sanctuary city.”

Immigrants are our family-loving, tax-paying, law-abiding friends and neighbors. We need to remember, and govern the city accordingly.

The City of Bellingham upholds American tradition by treating all its residents with the same level of respect, service, and protection under the law regardless of immigration status; and we’re proud to do so.

Michael Lilliquist and Pinky Vargas serve on Bellingham City Council.

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