Burien was among the first cities in Washington to declare itself a sanctuary city following the election of President Donald Trump, who promised tough enforcement against undocumented immigrants with rhetoric that focused on Latinx and Muslim people during his presidential campaign.
In January, the Burien City Council passed an ordinance that barred its police and city staff from inquiring about people’s citizenship or immigration status and further barred collecting information on people’s religion.
That law is being challenged by a voter initiative that will appear on the ballot this fall. Proposition 1, if passed, would repeal the city’s sanctuary status.
The most public backer of the repeal is Craig Keller, a West Seattle resident who opened a post-office box in Burien, where he has collected and received petitions in support ending the sanctuary status.
Keller declined multiple requests to speak on this story, but spoke publicly at Burien City Council meetings on July 31 and Aug. 7.
During the first meeting, Keller described his work on this initiative by quoting “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Martin Luther King Jr. explains why he left Atlanta to fight racism in Birmingham.
Keller blamed rape and drug crimes that took place in Burien on undocumented immigrants and said that the city is at risk to lose federal funding for public safety if it stands by the ordinance. Trump has threatened to pull federal public safety funding from sanctuary cities.
“Please, for the safety, the true safety of this community, please give the citizens a chance to reject this sanctuary misadventure so we can protect the budget of this city,” Keller said on Aug. 7.
While Keller compares his work to that of the iconic civil rights activist, his opponents see the effort as pure racism.
“Don’t be fooled, you are racist,” Burien City Council candidate Pedro Olguin said to those who signed the initiative that created Proposition 1. “You are a shame to our community, and I hope you feel that every day of your life.”
Most residents who spoke at the Aug. 7 meeting supported putting Proposition 1 on the ballot but said they would vote against it and were certain that Burien voters would reject the repeal effort.
But its inclusion on the ballot confirmed for some the growing racism that they have experienced in this city of 51,000 people, where 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“There has been a disturbing uptick in the number of hate crimes and hate speech,” said Alycia Ramirez, a lifelong Burien resident. “I myself have experienced this.”
Ramirez said that she has experienced people hurling racial epithets at her, telling her to leave the country and saying that her family should be buried in the desert.
The Burien City Council was split on this initiative when it passed in January. It eked by in a 4-3 vote, with councilmembers Lauren Berkowitz, Steve Armstrong, Austin Bell and Nancy Tosta in favor of the sanctuary city status.
The City Council was similarly divided by the repeal and spent two meetings discussing it. By law, the City Council has two options in responding to a voter initiative with sufficient signatures: It can pass the law as proposed or place it on the ballot.
Berkowitz wanted to explore a third option: challenging the validity of the signatures and initiative in court. To give time to explore that, she filibustered the July 31 meeting by speaking at length about the initiative and her opposition until the City Council narrowly agreed to end the meeting.
When discussion resumed Aug. 7, Councilmember Debi Wagner proposed a suspension of the rules, which would allow Mayor Lucy Krakowiak to force a vote on the initiative without further discussion. The council voted to put Proposition 1 on the ballot with six in favor and Berkowitz abstaining.
Krakowiak called for a recess of the meeting despite protests from Berkowitz, Tosta and Bell, who wanted time during the meeting to talk about Proposition 1.
The three used the recess to speak to residents from the dais as the other four councilmembers left their seats.
Berkowitz said that it was not proper for a city council to send constitutional rights onto a ballot to be voted on.
“We should have challenged the petitions in the courts instead,” she said.
Tosta defended the City Council’s January decision to become a sanctuary city.
“I’m very troubled that outside interests have come into our community and divided our community with hatred and fear mongering,” Tosta said.
Supporters of the initiative argued that the status is ultimately symbolic. The Burien Police Department is operated by the King County Sheriff’s Office, which already is working under similar sanctuary policies.
But the Burien ordinance goes further, barring all city staff from inquiring about immigration status and includes religion as well.
Burien resident Monse Padilla, who spent a decade working on immigration issues, said that local ordinances empower local governments to act.
“Deportation cases can be opposed because local governments intervene,” she said.
Even if it was symbolic, the symbol has caused a sharp divide that is felt across generations.
One Latino youth, perhaps in middle school, approached the microphone during public comment to share his own prepared remarks. But as soon as he reached the podium, he turned and left in tears.
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