Bellingham City Council heard a proposal from the city’s Immigrant Advisory Board on May 9, to establish an immigrant resource center that Whatcom County’s immigrant population could utilize.
Whatcom County has an immigrant population of approximately 24,000. Just over 12,000 of these immigrants are undocumented and the other half are naturalized U.S. citizens, according to the outlined proposal that the board presented to the council on Monday.
The proposal also emphasized that immigrants are disproportionately affected by discrimination, racism, language access issues and emergency events, such as COVID-19.
“Having an immigrant resource center is very important and could be very useful,” said Lelo Juarez, an immigrant and member of the board. “Right now our immigrant families don’t have anywhere to go and get help.”
Board members emphasized the disproportionate lack of resources that immigrants have in the Whatcom community.
Juarez said that most immigrant families do not have a flexible schedule that allows them to take time off to do things like enrolling their children in school or registering to vote.
Additionally, Juarez said that language barriers make it even harder for immigrant families to navigate government services.
“Words don’t create trust, actions do,” Juarez said. “By creating the resource center, the city shows that it welcomes the immigrant community members.”
Seattle, Denver, San Antonio and New York are a few of the cities that have implemented similar programs and seen successes. The advisory board researched and worked to create a structure that would recreate those successes and simultaneously work for Bellingham.
“While we’re not taking it verbatim because every community has its own needs, it has been really important for establishing a framework,” said Liz Darrow, member of the IAB.
The highest priority for the board is to maintain immigrant voices in the process of initiating and preserving a center.
“What has been really important in our process is that we want the community of immigrants who live here to design it and to run it,” Darrow said. “If we have participation from the community in terms of establishing and using the center, then we’ll know that we are doing well.”
The creation of such a center would come down to the decision of the Bellingham City Council and the Mayor’s Office.
Council members have already shown support for having a resource center that reaches and impacts people outside of Bellingham.
“[The center] clearly makes more sense to be done at a county level,” Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said. “Over and over again we realize that the problems we face do not stop or change at city limits.”
At the May 9 meeting, the board felt unanimous support from the council on the idea of a resource center.
Lilliquist made a motion to move the idea and request the Mayor’s Office to work with the board to create operational models, an organizational structure and a proposed budget that the council may evaluate.
The motion passed and began a process to create tangible progress toward an immigrant resource center.
Board members said that creating an immigrant resource center does not come without its challenges.
The board wants to be able to maintain immigrant voices throughout the approval process to ensure that the decisions are equitable and beneficial for immigrants.
“We want everything to come to the immigration advisory board for approval, we don’t want the city to take this and run with it,” Darrow said. “That would undo the hard work we’ve done taking in the community’s trust.”
The Immigrant Advisory Board regularly meets once a month with their next meeting scheduled for Tuesday, June 21.
Jenelle Baumbach (she/her) is the city news editor for The Front this quarter. She is a senior studying political science and news/editorial journalism. Her past reporting broadly covers local politics, the city council and community interests. In her free time, she enjoys looking at maps and meandering around antique stores. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.