Police won’t enforce federal immigration laws and Bellingham won’t be officially named a sanctuary city.
That’s what the City Council unanimously decided Monday night during a packed council meeting.
“Our job is to protect the residents of Bellingham and it’s not to do the work of immigration,” City Council Member Terry Bornemann said in an interview.
In November, Western Washington University students asked the City Council to protect undocumented immigrants by making the city a safe haven or sanctuary city.
The council’s decision capped months of discussions that involved meetings with affected communities and immigrant rights advocacy groups, including Community to Community Development, Western Washington University Blue Group and the Racial Justice Coalition.
City officials said they were codifying what they’ve been doing at least since 2006 – Bellingham police don’t, by policy, ask about immigration status, except in cases related to criminal activity, the city said – because they wanted to make a public statement of their support for communities that have been living in fear since President Donald Trump took office.
“I think there is enormous moral pressure on Bellingham to make a clear proclamation and take direct actions to ensure our community is welcoming, supportive and safe for all our community members,” City Council Member April Barker said in an interview.
The approval of the ordinance moves the city into the ranks of local governments that publicly refuse to help enforce civil immigration laws, despite Trump’s threat to pull federal funding from what are loosely referred to as “sanctuary cities.”
Some municipalities that limit how much their police can help federal immigration agents call themselves sanctuary cities, others don’t.
The City Council’s decision also clarified that immigration status wouldn’t be considered for services offered by the city.
People gathered outside City Hall before the meeting on Monday, holding signs that read “Illegal Immigration Started in 1492” and “Sanctuary Now.”
As the meeting started, they packed into council chambers and spilled out into a hallway. The city council heard from the public for two hours before making its decision.
Speakers on both sides were angry and passionate at times.
Opponents of the idea of a sanctuary city said the decision was dangerous because it would open the way for crime from undocumented immigrants and threaten federal funding. They didn’t want the council to support people who were here illegally.
Others told the council they weren’t criminals just because they were undocumented and urged the city to create a shelter from hate and bigotry. One woman, a farmworker, wept as she told of her sister being deported.
Still, advocacy group, Community to Community, and others denied that the city actually was helping undocumented immigrants by offering a status quo reinforcement of Bellingham policy. It called the city’s measure “weak.”
“The one you have in front of you is not the one my community wants. This is not what we need. This is not what will protect us,” said Rosalinda Guillen, a Bellingham resident and executive director of Community to Community.
The group had offered its own ordinance, one that included a call for civilian oversight of police and measures to address racial profiling.
The council said it wanted to deal with the request for a civilian oversight committee separately and has asked the mayor to start that process.
City Council Member Roxanne Murphy acknowledged the unhappiness of people who didn’t think the city’s policy went far enough.
“We have to start from somewhere in our community. We really have to start with something that is practical. Please work with us and not against us,” Murphy said to those in the audience Monday night.
On Tuesday, the city made it clear the decision didn’t mean police will interfere with federal agents carrying out enforcement activities.
Nor did it mean police wouldn’t have contact with federal law enforcement agencies, officials said.
That cooperation needs to continue in order to combat cross-border criminal activity such as drug and human trafficking, as federal authorities and Bellingham police did in November to break an alleged prostitution ring at Bellingham Foot Spa.
In its ordinance, the city also said it welcomed and supported immigrants and refugees and refused to participate in such actions as registering Muslims or providing surveillance of those of Middle Eastern descent.