BREMERTON — The Bremerton City Council had only one item on its March 29 special meeting agenda: whether the council should, and would, adopt a resolution declaring Bremerton to be a “welcoming city.”
The resolution was proposed to the council by Ray Garrido of the Kitsap Immigration Assistance Center in early February. Since then, it has been discussed by the council in a study session but not brought up for a vote.
That didn’t change on March 29.
Prior to the meeting, Council President Eric Younger said the council was pretty clearly “4-3 against,” and it hadn’t been brought up for an official vote because “it’s been a longstanding City Council policy not to bring resolutions forward unless they’re more than likely to pass.”
“No one here is necessarily against having language saying we’re inclusive,” Younger said. But words such as “sanctuary” and “welcoming” are “lightning rod words,” he said.
At the meeting, 41 people spoke: 28 in favor of the resolution, eight against, and five unclear where they stood.
Why say welcoming — and why not to
“I think that the word ‘welcoming’ is important because I think that KIAC’s resolution is an exercise in making our Bill of Rights life, and the Bill of Rights is a welcoming document,” Chuck Tanner said in support of the resolution.
“It makes no distinction in the basic human and civil rights between citizen and immigrant. That foundational document … applies to any person that’s there. It’s about right and wrong, and I would ask you to stand on this resolution and make the Bill of Rights live.”
Khai Devon also addressed why using the word “welcoming” is important.
“As someone who is only one generation removed from questionably legal immigration status, and somebody who has spent my entire life fighting for a place to be not ‘othered’ and not made different, I want to talk to you about the importance of symbolic representation and how much difference it makes for me, even though I’m white as white, to walk into a company that has a diversity initiative, to walk into a company that has at least thought about pronouns. To walk into a company who wants to provide the same sort of benefits and support to me and my wife as they do to couples that look a little bit more like Ward and June Cleaver.
“That kind of symbolic representation changes cultures,” Devon said. “Here in Bremerton, we have a culture that is open and we have a culture that is accepting and we need to maintain that, and the way that we do that is we use the word ‘welcoming,’ or we use the word ‘sanctuary,’ and we specifically make it clear that every single person is here because no person is ‘illegal.’ There is no such thing as a person who is ‘against the law.’ ”
People who spoke against the resolution said it seemed to imply protection for undocumented and illegal immigrants.
“I’m completely against any sanctuary for illegal immigrants at all,” Fred Jordan said. “Most of what I’ve heard tonight is talking about immigrants in general, as a whole. There’s a lot of great, good immigrants here. If they’re illegal, they’re criminals. Are you going to provide the same sanctuary to the American criminal hiding out?”
Former city councilmember Roy Runyon said, “We have U.S. immigration law. I am not in favor of any actions that would impede the federal government.” He suggested that the council take no action on the resolution. The document, he said, would not change a thing. “We already are a welcoming city,” he said.
Safety in the community
“You create no further safety or security with this resolution for the local immigrant community, regardless of their status,” Robert Parker said, speaking in opposition to the resolution. “I have a heartfelt feeling for the immigrants in our community and I support them. We need to create a safer place in our community for all … in a lawful manner, moving forward.”
On the issue of safety, however, supporters of the resolution had a lot to say.
“I’m a gay man, and I heard somebody talking about earlier that he felt we’re already a safe city, and he talked about the gays and lesbians and the immigrants, that it’s a safe place,” one speaker said.
“Well, if you’re not gay, if you’re not lesbian, if you’re not transgender, if they’re not an immigrant who’s coming running from another nation or your children are being raped or set aside as prostitutes, how would you know what it’s like to be in a city that’s not considered, or won’t pass that title — a safe city?”
Another speaker, Sophie Morse said, “It’s not really up to us to decide what it means to feel safe and what we need to feel safe. If I hear the voices of people who are marginalized and oppressed saying we need this, then I say, we need this.”
Is the resolution redundant?
Younger said multiple versions of the initial proposal have been considered. Council member Dino Davis referenced one that states that the City of Bremerton “is a welcoming and inclusive city that embraces all residents and visitors … regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual expression, mental ability and physical ability. We are a city that strives for unity and harmony in our community, and a city that respects the essential human dignity of all people.”
Some speakers questioned whether such a resolution was necessary, as the purpose is to state what many already consider to be true.
“I understand the welcoming aspect of our community,” Jim Nelson said. “We do that through our actions. We don’t welcome people in here with a symbolic gesture … Why don’t we just, through our actions, welcome people here by treating them with respect? That’s all we need. We don’t need to develop a symbolic gesture.”
David Mercer said symbols and words are important. “The values that have made this country what it is and probably will remain are things that we defend fiercely. So I think it’s a wise thing to look back at our history and reaffirm those words.”
Airen Lydick said a resolution, as policy and public commitment, is important to community trust. “That level of safety I know is not enjoyed by all the neighbors in my community,” he said. “As somebody who is white skinned, able bodied, male, I feel pretty welcomed. But everybody doesn’t feel the same amount of welcoming I do.”
Deborah McDaniel added, “Intention speaks volumes. If we say clearly that we intend to be fair and kind and compassionate of everybody … I think that works wonders.”
Johnny Walker of the Kitsap Patriots Tea Party told the council, “You’re in a pickle. Because some of the people in this room would believe that if you don’t somehow declare yourself ‘welcoming,’ you suddenly aren’t. Bremerton is and always has been, in my 25 or so years in the Kitsap Peninsula, a welcoming community. This is one of those times where a so-called welcoming document would only cause division.”
Council member Pat Sullivan spoke in opposition to the resolution. “I don’t support resolutions that speak to ‘sanctuary cities.’ Sanctuary is a place where people ran from the law to the church and were granted sanctuary from the church. That’s what sanctuary means to me.
“Right now, ‘welcoming’ in a form of a resolution, to me, is a national movement against the (presidential) administration at this point in time. So am I for a resolution that makes people face safe? I can be for one. But there are some that I would consider requirements within the law. I would put, ‘documented immigrants.’ ”
Council member Leslie Daugs spoke in favor of the resolution. “We are all human beings. Stop treating this like it’s the plague, that we don’t count. We count. We matter.”
Daugs, the daughter of immigrants, said that when she shared her story in a previous meeting, another council member told her that because she had never been to her parents’ home town, she and her story “don’t count.”
Daugs works for the Bremerton School District and said she’s seen evidence of children being afraid to come to school or not wanting to go to school out of fear of immigration enforcement. “No child should be afraid to come to school,” Daugs said. “We, as a council, need to make sure that our children are getting the education (they deserve), and the people that live here feel safe.”
Council member Jerry McDonald opposed the resolution, fearing federal retaliation during budgeting for defense.
“If we were to have another realignment, closures, Kitsap County could be on the chopping block,” McDonald said. “These are jobs we can not afford to lose, and are not worth the risk of declaring ourselves a sanctuary city. These terms are too political.”
Council member Greg Wheeler said, “I came here tonight to support a welcoming resolution. After carefully listening to all the testimony, nothing’s changed on that. There was fear growing in our immigrant community. ‘Welcoming’ means something. Those words matter. It is symbolic, but it is a show of leadership, also.”
Council member Dino Davis proposed the council vote to approve the resolution at its next regular board meeting. “I implore my fellow council members to really consider why they are opposing being a welcoming city. Basic human dignity is the only thing that matters.”
Council member Richard Huddy spoke against the resolution. “Bremerton is a welcoming city and hopefully always will be,” he said. While he understands there is “very real fear” in the immigrant community, the “crux of the problem” with the resolution is undocumented immigrants and the word “welcoming.”
“Welcoming” is “a politically charged code word related to ‘sanctuary,’” Huddy said. “A ‘welcoming city’ is a brand for a program that was developed by the Clinton Foundation. ‘Welcoming’ relates to undocumented immigrants, and it may actually signal that we encourage illegal activity. We also have concerns that ‘welcoming’ is a word that is closely related to ‘sanctuary.’ It may put a target on the back of Bremerton with respect to our (federal) grants and respect to the shipyard.”
Younger was the last to speak.
“When I read the face of (the resolution), I don’t see a problem with it at all, other than the key of it: ‘welcoming city,’ ” he said. “I want to expand it beyond what you see in the KIAC draft. I think we need to be more inclusive. But it’s a deal breaker for me to have ‘welcoming city’ or ‘sanctuary city’ in it.”
Younger denied Davis’ motion to put the resolution on the next regular meeting agenda for a vote.
“We don’t have a majority that’s going to vote for a welcoming city resolution,” Younger said. “I will not present a resolution for voting that I know is going to fail. My challenge to the council is that we need to meet in the middle and have a resolution that echoes the sentiments of the majority of the people here, set the politics aside and pass something 7-0.”