Forthcoming event focuses on immigration rights in Whatcom

The Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office and Community to Community are co-hosting an immigration rights event for noncitizens.

The Whatcom County General public Defender’s Workplace and Local community to Neighborhood are co-web hosting an immigration legal rights party for noncitizens.

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In an effort to build relationships and empower community members lacking permanent legal status, the Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office and Community to Community will co-host an immigration rights event this week.

The “Know Your Rights” event, which will include volunteer attorneys and Spanish, Mam and Mixteco language interpreters, is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, at Community to Community’s gathering space, 1295 E. Bakerview Road in Bellingham. Community to Community is a local nonprofit led by and for farmworkers focused on immigration rights and food sovereignty.

The event will have presentations on noncitizen rights that are included in both the U.S. and Washington state Constitutions, as well as focus on two state laws that prohibit local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and others from working with federal agencies for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

Presenters will also role-play scenarios and discuss steps noncitizens can take to decrease their chances of having adverse contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection. Food will also be served.

“Under the Constitution, there are certain rights that everyone has regardless of immigration status,” said Rosario Daza, an immigration attorney who helped bring the county public defender’s office and Community to Community together. The event is “basically arming the community with education and connection so that they feel if they assert their rights to remain silent, there will be a public defender there to have their back.”

While there are laws that prohibit local law enforcement agencies from collaborating with federal agencies on immigration enforcement, various agencies across the state continue to work with federal immigration officials, Daza said.

“The ways that we can push back against that are by empowering the community to know what their rights are and to assert these rights, and to also educate public defenders to spot these violations and report them as well,” Daza said. “This transparency and this advocacy is what holds law enforcement and state actors to their obligations under the Constitution and under these state laws.”

There has always been a need to empower community members of various immigration statuses to know what the laws and their rights are, especially since Whatcom County is a border county, said Australia Tobón, who works with Community to Community and is part of Bellingham’s Immigration Advisory Board.

Too often community members and organizations have received calls about family members who haven’t returned home, students facing immigration issues because they or their parents were stopped by law enforcement, or people getting lost and ending up at the Canadian border crossing while trying to find a job site, Tobón said.

“There are just so many different things to the realities of community members who are noncitizens of our county,” she said.

Of the 230,677 people living in Whatcom County, roughly 10.3% are Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimate. That is the second largest demographic in Whatcom next to white people, the data shows.

Collaboration and education

While the primary focus of Wednesday’s event is on educating people about their rights in Washington, there is also a focus on collaboration, Tobón said. A public defender can sometimes be the only attorney an immigrant may come into contact with who could potentially prevent that person from becoming involved in the immigration deportation pipeline, Tobón said.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires criminal defense attorneys to provide advice regarding immigration consequences to their clients. Whatcom County Chief Deputy Public Defender Maialisa Vanyo said she often uses resource attorneys with the Washington Defender Association to help provide this advice to her clients.

As part of that process, Vanyo said she fills out a form that has her ask clients detailed questions about their entry to the United States, their family members and more “really private, personal information that could be really frightening for someone to share.” Vanyo said one of her goals with the upcoming event is to explain why a public defender may be asking these questions, how attorney-client privilege protects a person’s answers, what attorneys will do with that information and how it helps them provide accurate immigration advice if needed.

Partnering with Community to Community for the event also provides a chance for noncitizens and the public defender’s office to build relationships, Vanyo said.

“I wanted to see us reaching out to populations that we’re maybe not as naturally accessible to and I feel like asking that community to come to us is a hard ask,” Vanyo said. “I wanted us to reach out and be available and see what the response was to that offering of education and support. … I want to see that grow for our office and have us be available for people, because we’re here for all people in Whatcom County.”

Tobón said they have been working hard to get out information about the upcoming event, including sending invitations to community leaders. She said she hopes that after the event, leaders will take the information learned and share it with their communities.

The intention behind Wednesday’s event is ultimately to decrease noncitizens’ fear and to teach that there are ways to protect themselves at the local level, Tobón said. It’s not about negating the fears that exist because of current immigration laws and enforcement, but rather to let people know about the tools available to them and how to prevent adverse interactions, she said.

“We can’t address fears. The only thing we can do is to give people the armor to know what the law says and what it can and can’t do,” Tobón said. “If a community is informed, they’ll take it upon themselves to try to take care of each other and try to seek out resources and help so we don’t have the separations occur or we can prevent problems.”

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and prison and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.

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