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By Teya Heidenreich

Immigrants’ fears and points of view will be heard more than ever starting with Mayor Seth Fleetwood’s appointment of 10 community members to the new Immigration Advisory Board on Feb. 24.

The board was officially established at the Bellingham City Council meeting that Monday. According to Ordinance 2019-11-033, which established the board, the board's purpose is to review and evaluate policies and make recommendations relating to immigration matters.

Part of the board's purpose is to analyze city data for compliance with Senate Bill 5497.

Councilmember Hannah Stone spearheaded the establishment of the board. She described the Senate bill in an August Justice Committee meeting.

“This new law is commonly titled “Keep Washington Working Act,” but it establishes a statewide policy supporting Washington’s economy and immigrants’ role in the workplace,” Stone said. 

The conversation that led to the establishment of the new board started in July 2019. At a Justice Committee meeting, Stone said fear about immigration enforcement goes beyond the undocumented population, and residents or people with work visas fear being detained because of skin color or language barriers.

Stone said she wanted to make sure a needs assessment was brought forward from the communities who are most impacted, and that there was outreach to advocacy, farmworker and immigrant communities. She said she wanted to find out and address threats and the basis of people’s fears, then look at policy development.

“When we’re advocating and saying that we want to provide safe spaces for people to either reside, or safe spaces where people can file complaints and receive assistance, [we want to make] sure that there is accountability and transparency with those processes,” Stone said.

“I just fielded a lot of questions this weekend about, ‘Why don’t you have a sanctuary policy?’ When I look at our policy compared to other places that call themselves a sanctuary city, it’s the same if not more robust, and I think just not having a title is confusing [for] people,” Councilmember April Barker said at the meeting.

The advisory board consists of Jahn Zuniga Escobar, Ada Rumford, Rick Qualls, Liz Darrow, Bridget Reeves, Katie Winkelman, Danielle Siedlecki, Rev. Seth Thomas, María Isabel Cortes-Zamora and Ramon Barba Torres.

On his application to the board, Zuniga Escobar wrote that he was a Bellingham immigrant and small construction company owner who was detained in the Aug. 29 raid and held in Tacoma for five months. 

When asked why he was interested in serving on the board, Zuniga Escobar wrote, “[To] provide direct knowledge of what immigrants go through in our community.”

Other board member positions include case manager of immigrant clients, pastor, legislative advocate and teacher.

Brian Heinrich, deputy administrator for the city of Bellingham, said people in the Bellingham community have become more aware of local government response to immigration requests from the federal government because of federal immigration policies and decisions.

“By policy, the Bellingham Police Department doesn’t enforce civil immigration law,” Heinrich said. “City policy doesn’t prohibit the provision of city services based on immigration, so if you want to get a library card or go to the museum or use one of our city parks, anyone is free to do so.”

Heinrich said the Immigration Advisory Board would play a role in bringing up new information they believe the city should consider. He stressed that Bellingham leadership wants the city to be welcoming, safe and absent of fear for residents who need help. This help could be for medical emergencies, witnessing crimes or being a crime victim. 

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