Bellingham reaffirms it won’t enforce immigration laws. What’s next?

The "Welcome to Bellingham" sign on Boulevard Street in Bellingham, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. The sign was originally painted by the Fairhaven Lions Club in 1964.
The "Welcome to Bellingham" sign on Boulevard Street in Bellingham, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. The sign was originally painted by the Fairhaven Lions Club in 1964. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

While the City Council this week didn’t designate Bellingham as a “sanctuary” city, it did reaffirm that local police won’t enforce federal immigration laws.

What does the council’s unanimous decision to limit cooperation with immigration officials mean? Is it even a change from what the city does now?

Here are some answers.

What is a “sanctuary” city?

There isn’t one definition but, broadly, it’s a jurisdiction that refuses to ask people about their immigration status or declines to detain people solely because they’re undocumented immigrants, saying local resources and local police shouldn’t be used to enforce civil immigration laws that are the responsibility of the federal government.

“Our job is to protect the residents of Bellingham. It’s not to do the work of immigration,” Bellingham City Council Member Terry Bornemann said.

That’s been Bellingham’s stance since at least 2006.

“It just codifies our existing practices,” Mayor Kelli Linville said.

Like Bellingham, other municipalities with such practices don’t necessarily designate themselves as sanctuary cities.

This week wasn’t the first time in recent years that Bellingham, known for being a liberal city, has publicly jumped into the fray around immigration issues.

On Jan. 30, Bellingham leaders denounced President Donald Trump’s “anti-immigrant executive orders,” saying they were a “direct attack on the people of Bellingham.”

“The City of Bellingham will stand up for the people in our community, and we will not waste vital police resources on misguided federal actions,” said the statement from the mayor and the City Council Workgroup on Immigration.

On Monday night, the full City Council passed a resolution stating that “we will not turn our backs on immigrants, regardless of documentation status.” Then it passed the ordinance making clear that police won’t serve as immigration agents.

In October 2005, the City Council denounced the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, saying the group created fear, racism and violence in the areas it patrolled.

That was in response to the civilian militia group setting up posts between Blaine and Sumas to keep an eye on the U.S.-Canadian border, saying they were on the lookout for illegal immigration and criminal activity.

Opponents said the group stirred up anti-Hispanic sentiment and made Hispanic residents in Whatcom County feel uncomfortable.

What does the city’s new ordinance do?

It affirms and clarifies what Bellingham already has been doing.

So what does that look like? According to Bellingham officials:

▪ The city won’t consider immigration status for any of the services it delivers.

▪ Bellingham police won’t ask about anyone’s immigration status unless it’s directly related to criminal activity.

▪ People who commit crimes here, or are wanted elsewhere for committing a crime, will be arrested regardless of immigration status. But people who are victims of a crime or witnesses won’t be detained.

“We want people to feel comfortable reporting to the city, especially crimes, and we don’t want them to feel unsafe in reporting because of their immigration status,” Linville said. “We don’t want to use our resources to be enforcing federal law that we’re not required to enforce.”

▪ Police won’t conduct sweeps or round up people solely because they’re illegal immigrants.

Still, local immigrants rights groups said the city’s ordinance didn’t do enough to protect undocumented residents.

How much could Bellingham’s stance cost the city?

In January, Trump signed an executive order threatening to pull federal funding from “sanctuary” cities.

The city has said that could mean a loss of funds for free and reduced lunches, housing and human services, environmental cleanup, and grants for police equipment as well as other services to the tune of roughly $11 million.

Still, city leaders said their decision doesn’t obstruct immigration enforcement. And they believe it complies with current federal law, adding that previous court rulings support the right of local governments to refuse to take on the responsibility of enforcing immigration laws.

How many municipalities in the U.S. have “sanctuary” provisions?

There are at least 39 cities, 633 counties and five states, including Oregon and California, according to The New York Times.

The newspaper used data from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which tracked local jurisdictions that declined to hold immigrants in detention at the request of federal authorities.

An article from The Washington Post, which focused on the 168 counties where most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. reside, found 69 counties refuse to detain people in jail because they’re undocumented, while 99 do.

The Post article also used data from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Because counties usually run jails, what they do can be more important, according to the piece.

So what is the policy of the Whatcom County jail?

Sheriff Bill Elfo has said the jail won’t hold on to undocumented criminals after they’ve been scheduled for release, unless federal agents making what are known as detainer requests have a warrant.

The jail does, however, notify federal agents of the release time so they can take such inmates leaving jail into federal custody.

Elfo said his office doesn’t enforce federal immigration law, which is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.

The other reason for his decision around detainer requests is legal liability, based on federal court rulings.

One held that complying with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, part of Homeland Security, was voluntary for local law enforcement.

Another case, cited by Elfo, was the 2014 ruling in Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County out of Oregon. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the county violated a woman’s Fourth Amendment right against unlawful arrest and detention by prolonging her imprisonment at the request of immigration officials.

That ruling led to jails and police outside of Oregon to say they would no longer comply with ICE detainers.

What do other local law enforcement do?

A check with police departments throughout Whatcom County found that they, like Bellingham police and the sheriff’s office, want to leave responsibility for immigration to the federal government.

Ferndale police don’t ask people about their immigration status, unless it’s related to a crime, city spokesman Riley Sweeney said.

“We’re focused on solving Ferndale crimes and we’re doing what it takes to solve those crimes in our jurisdiction,” he said.

Police for Lynden, Blaine, Sumas, Everson, Nooksack and Western Washington University all follow the same policy.

This story was clarified at 4:23 p.m. Feb. 17 to indicate that while the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t hold on to undocumented criminals beyond their scheduled release unless federal agents have a warrant, its jail does notify federal agents of the release time so they can take such inmates leaving jail into federal custody.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea