Politics & Government

Tacoma Council forms immigrant and refugee task force, stops shy of sanctuary city

The Tacoma City Council, facing mounting calls that it join the ranks of Seattle, Olympia and others that have adopted the label of sanctuary city, decided Tuesday to create an immigrant and refugee task force.

The task force will allow Tacoma’s immigrant and refugee community to share experiences and provide feedback to the city, said Councilman Marty Campbell, who proposed its creation. It came in reaction to President Donald Trump’s executive order that temporarily blocks citizens of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen from entering the country and suspends refugee admissions for 120 days.

“I think this is the next step in part of our Welcoming Cities resolution that we passed, which is engaging immigrants and refugees and creating a task force and maybe eventually a committee,” Campbell said. “What are some of the issues you face navigating day to day around the city from a government perspective and a societal perspective, and how can we help reduce or remove barriers you have?”

Though it was a late addition to the council agenda, Campell’s proposal garnered a great deal of attention before the meeting, and dozens of residents showed up in council chambers Tuesday night. Some supported the council’s move. Many implored the body to take a step further and proclaim Tacoma a sanctuary city, a gesture that has no legal definition but generally means that a city won’t help enforce federal immigration laws.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said at Tuesday’s meeting that Tacoma police officers do not check the immigration status of people they encounter on duty. The council declared Tacoma a Welcoming City in 2015, underlining its support for the immigrant community and a desire to foster an immigrant-friendly environment in the city. After November’s election, the City Council reaffirmed its dedication to that ideal.

The City Council considers itself a regional leader in the Welcoming Cities movement, which generally means that the city tries to be immigrant-friendly by making services accessible and not dependent on legal immigration status. On social media and at Tuesday’s meeting, Campbell pointed out that the Seattle City Council voted only this week to become a Welcoming City.

But the Tacoma council won’t, at least for now, go so far as sanctuary city status.

Strickland, who spoke for several minutes before public comment, said a city with the tax base of Tacoma — as opposed to that of Seattle or New York City — can’t afford to lose the roughly $85 million in federal funding it gets each year. That’s the risk that’s run with self-identifying as a sanctuary city, Strickland said, especially as Trump has attempted to crack down on cities that aren’t enforcing federal immigration laws.

“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,” she 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.”

A recent executive order signed by the president gives the federal government authority to decide what constitutes a sanctuary jurisdiction and what doesn’t, while threatening to withhold federal grant money from states, cities and counties that “fail to comply with applicable federal law.”

“In Tacoma, that money matters, and I do not want to put the city in a position to sacrifice federal funding,” Strickland said.

Some city and state officials have questioned whether the administration could withhold federal funding from communities like Tacoma that don’t specifically adopt the sanctuary label, but follow many of the same practices.

Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington constitutional law professor, has told The News Tribune that the threat to strip funding from jurisdictions could face legal barriers. And if the federal government did cut funding, it might be able to strip only grant money dealing with immigration enforcement, but not unrelated grants.

Some who spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting agreed that the city shouldn’t risk federal funding or potentially drawing attention to its already vulnerable immigrant and refugee communities by coming out as a sanctuary city. But the refrain “words matter,” first uttered by UFCW 21’s political and public policy director Sarah Cherin, was repeated several times by speakers throughout the night who felt the designation is crucial.

“Let’s take one step forward in what I already think is a great resolution,” Cherin said, adding that if the city and state had not pushed for marriage equality, her wife would still be her domestic partner.

“Words matter. The word ‘marriage’ matters, just like the words ‘sanctuary city’ today — that matters. We cannot study right or wrong, we can’t sit by and study what might or might not happen. Let’s make the move to stand up against Islamophobia and xenophobia tonight and add a sentence calling us a sanctuary city.”

Councilman Ryan Mello said Tuesday that city staff should work quickly to form the task force because people are in crisis. In an interview Wednesday, Mello said he respects the mayor's position of not wanting to put Tacoma in a position to lose federal funding, but that he would support Tacoma becoming a sanctuary city.

“So every time (Trump) does something crazy and counter to our values and to the Constitution, are we going to lay down because we're fearful of possibly losing a few million dollars?” he said. “At some point you have to call a spade a spade and stand in solidarity and fight back a bully in solidarity, I don't know any other way to do it.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud