(From left) Maggie Breen, Aneelah Afzali and Cinthia Vasquez were few of the panelists present at the town hall on May 16 at Luther’s Table. Photo by Leah Abraham

City leaders discuss immigration issues at town hall

Nearly 50 residents turned out Tuesday, May 16, for a town hall meeting to discuss immigration issues, including sanctuary city status, policing, racism/xenophobia, and more.

The town hall was hosted by Renton Resist, an online group that formed in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and was held at Luther’s Table. The group has been lobbying the City Council and the mayor to declare Renton a sanctuary city. Currently, the city is proclaimed to be a inclusive city.

The meeting kicked off with a representative of Renton Resist reading out loud the difference between a sanctuary city, welcoming/inclusive city and a safe city.

That was then followed by opening statements from faith leaders Maggie Breen of REACH (Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches), Aneelah Afzali of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound and Kasey Hahn, pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.

Following the faith leaders, city officials and community leaders took the stage for their opening remarks, including Renton Police Chief Kevin Milosevich; Benita Horn, city’s inclusion and equity consultant; council member Ruth Perez; Renton School District spokesperson Randy Matheson; Preeti Shridhar, the city’s deputy public affairs administrator; and Cinthia Vasquez of Washington Dream Coalition.

The topic that took the spotlight Tuesday evening was the importance of a sanctuary city status, and the featured panelists were split in their opinion.

Vasquez, who identified as being an undocumented resident, said all cities should adopt the sanctuary city label.

“We have seen the Trump administration has expanded the deportations but also is providing the funding to ensure those deportations happen,” she said. “…That is why we need local politics and we are relying on local city officials to provide those types of protections to those who are living and working in our cities.”

Shridhar stressed the city’s proclamation to be an inclusive city and how those values are reflected in the city’s business plan.

“I have always assumed we are a sanctuary and a welcoming city because… it’s written all over that we’re a welcoming, inclusive city,” said Perez. “To pass a resolution and pass a proclamation, I have no problem with that if that makes people feel safer. But it is one thing is to make people feel safe and the other thing is to do things that actually make them safe.”

In her opening statement, Afzali said, “At the end of the day, the legal meanings of them are not particularly defined a certain way. There is no specific legal meaning. The important thing is that we’re having this conversation. We’re having this discussion. That we’re making clear that everybody in our community is a part of our community and we’ll stand with each other and protect each other.”

In a previous City Council meeting, representatives of Renton Resist urged the council and the mayor to deem the city a sanctuary city and offered a draft of a sanctuary city proclamation. Mayor Denis Law said at the Feb. 27 council meeting the sanctuary city label could make the city a potential target.

“A number of cities have resisted only for the reason that there’s some fear that it puts a target on the city by the federal government,” he said. “Our policies, as it pertains to interacting to our community and residents, is no different to Seattle’s… but if people don’t feel safe unless you say sanctuary, I would hate to give them a false sense of security. I would also hate to become a list of West Coast cities where there’s extra enforcement.”

On the policing front, Milosevich reiterated the RPD’s position that law enforcement officials do not ask residents about their citizenship status.

“We have never asked for proof of citizenship for undocumented citizens and we don’t plan on that now,” he said at the town hall. “For law enforcement to be effective, it requires us to work with our citizens. That requires citizens to trust us. The last thing we want is have a group of citizens afraid of working with law enforcement over fear of being found out they’re undocumented.”

Milosevich also highlighted their recent efforts of working with the city’s Latino community to build relationships.

He also talked about the 287(g) program, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) initiative that “allows a state or local law enforcement entity to enter into a partnership with ICE, under a joint Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), in order to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions, according to the ICE website.

Milosevich said the City Council would have to authorize, Renton police to partner with ICE. Currently, the program is not in effect in Renton.

Matheson outlined the school district’s federal and state restrictions that prohibit the district from inquiring a student’s immigration status. He also talked about the 2011 ICE policy that says ICE officers and agents will not come to “sensitive locations,” which includes schools and churches.

At the end of the two hour town hall, Shelley Green of Renton Resist said she thought the discussion “went great.”

“The intention of the Renton Resist in organizing it was to start this conversation. In my mind it went better than I even imagined,” said Green. “There was great dialogue and all sorts of points of view represented. That’s exactly what’s needed in these complicated times.”