Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: When the time comes, Tacoma needs to be a sanctuary, labeled or not

For those hoping to see Tacoma join the ranks of sanctuary cities across the country — jurisdictions grouped under an ambiguous umbrella of cities publicly refusing to enforce immigration laws on behalf of the federal government — Tuesday night’s City Council meeting was a letdown.

Should it have been?

Here’s what the council did accomplish this week: Largely in response to President Donald Trump’s draconian executive order temporarily blocking citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the country, and suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days, City Councilman Marty Campbell championed the creation of an immigrant and refugee task force.

The new body, which Campbell views as an extension of Tacoma’s Welcoming Cities resolution of 2015, will be tasked with listening to Tacoma’s immigrant and refugee community, and helping to “reduce or remove barriers,” as Campbell put it.

It’s a good move. In the era of Trump, when a dangerous nationalism is coming from the top and the security of our immigrant communities is under siege, gestures of sincere support are important.

Many, however, were hoping for a more forceful gesture, something that would stick it to a leader who promised bans, wall building and deportations on the campaign trail and now seems to be quickly attempting to deliver.

I count myself among these sanctuary city hopefuls, desiring a strong and public rebuttal to Trump’s immigration policies. Such a response — symbolic or not — feels warranted. Ultimately, I believe it’s what this moment in history demands of us.

Because this is what it looks like out there:

We have a lot of very scared, frightened and worried clients and community members.

Tacoma Community House Executive Director Liz Dunbar

“We have a lot of very scared, frightened and worried clients and community members,” Tacoma Community House Executive Director Liz Dunbar told me. Among other things, the 107-year-old organization she leads provides education, employment, advocacy and citizenship assistance for area immigrants and refugees.

“They ask us if it’s safe to come back to school, if it’s safe to go to the grocery store, what’s going to happen to them and their families,” Dunbar said of the daily interactions that have followed Trump’s executive orders on immigrations.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety that we’re trying to address. … And we really don’t have good answers for them in some cases about what’s going to happen, because it is a very uncertain situation,” Dunbar said.

“That’s the really troubling part.”

In truth, there are many troubling parts of what we’re watching play out in real time.

While most of the focus has gone toward Trump’s attempted refugee ban, his executive orders collectively usher in a host of changes that are likely to have major impacts on the way immigration laws are enforced, according to Robin Jacobson, a political science professor at University of Puget Sound who’s written extensively on issues of U.S. immigration.

Chief among them is a shift in priorities for immigration enforcement officials, moving from a focus on those who have committed an offense other than breaking the immigration law — an approach favored under the Obama administration — to one that puts anyone who’s here without legal permission in the immigration enforcement crosshairs.

“That’s a real substantial change that could have impacts on the ground,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson says Trump’s executive orders expand the “entanglement” between local law enforcement officers and immigration enforcement, a move designed to force, or at least pressure local police forces like Tacoma’s to aid in immigration enforcement efforts — or else.

Which brings us back to the question of how Tacoma should respond.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Mayor Marilyn Strickland delivered a clear message: Declaring Tacoma sanctuary city was an unnecessary step because we’re already operating under the essence of what it means to be one.

Tacoma police officers don’t check the immigration status of people they encounter on duty, she said — one of the ways declared sanctuary cities push back against federal immigration efforts.

“There have been calls for Tacoma to declare itself a sanctuary city, and my answer to that is it’s not necessary because we are already doing the work, above and beyond, and we’ve been doing the work long before the current occupant of the White House took office,” Strickland said. “My position right now is we don’t have to declare ourselves a sanctuary city because in essence, it’s not what we say in a press release, it’s about what we do every single day.”

I agree that when it comes to protecting Tacoma’s immigrant population, the proof really does rest in actions, not labels.

And while some constitutional experts argue that the Trump administration’s ability to cut federal funding from uncooperative cities is more limited than the $85 million in federal funding that Strickland expressed concern over, caution is understandable when that much money is involved and what will ultimately happen remains so uncertain.

My position right now is we don’t have to declare ourselves a sanctuary city because in essence, it’s not what we say in a press release, it’s about what we do every single day.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland

But here’s what’s also clear: The way Trump’s executive orders are worded, adopting the sanctuary label likely doesn’t matter. We’ll be judged by our actions, and if Tacoma police refuse to play along, or requests for detainers are denied at the Pierce County Jail, it will likely “draw the ire of the administration,” as Jacobson puts it.

In other words, whether we call ourselves a sanctuary or not won’t be the issue.

“As the political landscape changes, and the federal government demands more cooperation from cities, (a fear of losing federal funding) suggests to me a political hesitancy to stand up and do the right thing,” Jacobson said.

I hope that read proves premature. I hope our leaders are simply being cautious, for the time being. I hope that, when the day comes, Tacoma emerges on the right side of history.

Because how we reacted Tuesday night probably isn’t as important as how we react in the months and years to come.