More than 600 jurisdictions in the United States have declared sanctuary status, refusing to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. March 21, residents of Auburn held a town hall meeting in St. Matthew Episcopal Church to discuss a proposed ordinance that would do the same in this South King County town of about 75,000 people.
By 6:30 p.m., the evening sun cascaded through the eastern windows of the sanctuary, lighting the small room as people slowly filed in, greeting their neighbors and community members as they found seats. Rev. Antonio Illas began the meeting, speaking from a podium facing the crowd.
He first welcomed the community in English and Spanish, establishing it as an open forum for the discussion. Illas said that the church community, like many of those in attendance, understood the fear of federal immigration officials after sheltering an undocumented immigrant in 2007. As he spoke, residents listened intently and children ran through aisles in between seats.
Uriel, a 5th-grade student, was applauded as he came up to speak. His body mostly obscured by the podium, he described the fear he and his younger brother experienced every day, not knowing whether they would see their mother when they came home from school.
“I am here today because I am tired of seeing fear in my neighborhood,” Uriel said. “I want to make sure that everyone is protected and secure, and I want to make sure that we are doing all we can to keep families and communities together.”
Although the language around sanctuary cities varies, there are four general requirements. First, that police are not actively detaining undocumented residents for their immigration status. Second, that equal service and opportunity is provided regardless of immigration status. Third, that any federal inquiry to the city on immigration information of residents will be refused. And fourth, that no city funds will be used to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Auburn adopted an inclusive city status in 2008, using the first two of those four criteria, said Mayor Nancy Backus. Backus said the decision ultimately falls to the Auburn City Council. Backus sees her role as following that policy after it is voted in, as she has with the inclusive city status. She is trying to balance all voices in her community. This is why she is concerned about a potential loss of federal funds if the ordinance is adopted.
“That funding, quite frankly, helps a lot of individuals in our community that are underemployed, unemployed, underserved in a number of ways,” Backus said. “It would be a double hit in some regards.”
City programs could be cut if the city refused to comply with immigration officials, such as Community Oriented Policing Services and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants. In many cases, undocumented residents benefit from these grants. Though the city could argue against the loss of funds in court, Backus is concerned that residents would suffer during the amount of time that ruling would take.
Emy Yoko, Washington Community Action Network’s Auburn community organizer, said that this discussion is about people wanting to feel safe. More than just allowing undocumented or refugee members of the community to feel welcomed, Yoko said sanctuary city status would strengthen the bond between residents and city government. Over the past year she has spoken with members of the community. People are afraid to call the police for fear of deportation and some are unable to seek medical help because of their immigration status.
“As I talk to more and more people, this is the reality that a lot of people are experiencing.” Yoko said. “People who are documented have friends and families who feel this fear, and it’s spreading to them. They’re fearful that their friends are going to be gone, their church members are going to be gone.”
The three city council members on the ad hoc committee to deliberate sanctuary city status attended the meeting. Toward the end of the meeting, some residents confronted the council members and asked for an impromptu vote on sanctuary city status. Each city council member refused, explaining that it was too early for a decision. As residents held up phones to record the confrontation, council members urged residents to be patient with this process.
Auburn Resident and member of St. Matthew Episcopal Church Diane Aid took up the mic after council members spoke. She explained that the church declared sanctuary in 2007 to protect an undocumented immigrant from deportation. His children were 5 and 7 years old at the time.
His case was finally adjudicated last year, nine years after the church declared sanctuary status.
“His children grew up not knowing whether he would have to leave at any time,” Aid said. “We cannot put children through that.”
The ad hoc committee is deliberating the proposed ordinance. The three-member committee is researching and speaking with people who would be affected by the ordinance.
The committee plans to announce an update by the end of April.