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Undocumented WWU students call to make Bellingham a sanctuary city

Students from the Western Washington University Blue Group, a club for undocumented immigrants and allies, pose for a photo after speaking at Bellingham City Council Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, to ask the council declare Bellingham a sanctuary city.
Students from the Western Washington University Blue Group, a club for undocumented immigrants and allies, pose for a photo after speaking at Bellingham City Council Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, to ask the council declare Bellingham a sanctuary city. swohlfeil@bhamherald.com

Western Washington University students asked Bellingham City Council on Monday night to protect undocumented immigrants by making the city a safe haven or sanctuary city.

Students from WWU Blue Group, a club for undocumented immigrants and allies, said the results of the recent presidential election left many of them uncertain about their futures.

Before it was the students’ turn to speak, 20-year Bellingham resident Thomas Paine used his three-minute public comment to say the city should not become a safe haven at least in part because people are murdered by “illegals” each year.

He cited the case of Kathryn Steinle, a woman who was shot and killed in San Francisco in 2015 when a homeless undocumented man, who had been released from jail in the sanctuary city, fired a gun on Pier 14. Steinle’s death has been cited by lawmakers in Congress as well as President-elect Donald Trump as an example of why sanctuary cities should lose federal funding.

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Blue Group President Victoria Matey, a 23-year-old senior at WWU, spoke next, and asked the council to ensure undocumented people are safe from being rounded up in the city.

“The fear in the undocumented community is palpable, but our community is strong and we have optimism that our allies will come through and fight this with us,” Matey said. “So we come to you in need of help.”

She acknowledged the threat of federal funding being withheld, but asked the council to acknowledge the contributions immigrants make to the city and country.

“We are undocumented, and we are unafraid, and we are unapologetic,” she said. “There are people here opposing us tonight. I want you to look into their eyes and hear their tone of voice and hear where they are coming from. A place of hate. A place I don’t understand.”

Other commenters spoke against Bellingham becoming a sanctuary city.

Eric Bostrom, who said he is a local preacher, argued that sanctuary cities are unfair to people who have done things legally.

One woman said her daughter got into WWU only to get wait-listed for classes. She wondered how many seats were filled by “undocumented aliens.”

But others spoke in favor of the students’ request.

Olga Prado said, “For many of us, we didn’t choose to be undocumented.

“Our parents brought us here in search of a better life,” Prado said. “We have done nothing wrong. Calling us illegals is dehumanizing and criminalizing.”

Prado said undocumented immigrants contribute about $292 million in taxes to Washington state each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The amount would be higher with full legal status.

Maria Prieto said she was ashamed and horrified that people would lump all undocumented immigrants with the few who have committed crimes, and pointed out that citizens commit crimes as well.

Ana Cervantes said she decided to speak after hearing the woman who complained about her daughter not being able to get into classes.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been wait-listed,” Cervantes said. “My parents brought us here not by choice. There’s so much fighting in Mexico, it wasn’t a choice.”

Outside the meeting, the students comforted one another.

“I think people are blind,” Cervantes said. “They see our skin color and see ‘illegal immigrants’ written all over our faces.”

Matey said it was painful to see people showed up opposing them, but said they would continue their fight.

“We are strong. We need to meet ignorance with patience,” Matey said.

Existing policy

Earlier Monday, the council agreed to a request by member April Barker to have staff research what the implications of becoming a sanctuary city might be.

Bellingham isn’t a self-declared sanctuary city, though some policies are neutral to immigration status so enforcement by Bellingham Police Department “occurs in a nondiscriminatory manner, and in a way that encourages cooperation of all residents with police enforcement matters,” Bellingham Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich wrote in an email.

Bellingham does not allow officers to detain people solely on suspicion of their immigration status, and does not typically ask about status, a department immigration violation policy states.

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, does share information with agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement if someone booked into the jail has a “hit” come back from a database, said Undersherrif Jeff Parks. But the sheriff’s office is tasked with enforcing state and local laws, not immigration, and deputies don’t arrest people on ICE detainers, Parks said.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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