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Petaluma shows support for undocumented immigrants

After an outcry from a diverse group of residents, Petaluma is poised to be the next Sonoma County city to consider adopting a resolution to safeguard its undocumented and culturally marginalized population, a move that officials view largely as a vocal reaffirmation of the city’s existing policies.

At the Feb. 6 Petaluma City Council meeting, a crowd filled the council chambers and flooded into the hallway to speak during public comment to urge officials to adopt a resolution that organizers titled “It Won’t Happen Here,” a document that echoes resolutions recently adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council. The declaration, prepared by a group of Sonoma County activists, states that the city will formally take a stance against “undemocratic” federal policies.

Described as a statement to affirm the positive relationship between the government and its people, the declaration states that officials will “refuse to cooperate” with demands stemming from the federal government regarding detentions, deportations, registries or conversation therapies. The document states opposition to discriminatory acts based on documentation status, race, religion, gender identity or other protected characteristics, though it sidesteps the use of the controversial term “sanctuary.”

The politically loaded term lacks a clear-cut definition, but President Donald Trump has indicated that federal funding might be cut to cities that formally adopt the designation. Sam Tuttelman, a Petaluma resident involved with drafting the declaration, said the term is vague and the proposed resolution offers a more concrete assurance to residents.

Though members of the city council weren’t able to respond directly to the remarks made during public comment, a three-member subcommittee is tasked with drafting a formal resolution that will be presented to the council for approval at its Feb. 27 meeting.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller, a member of the subcommittee, said the group is working to funnel the concepts presented in the “It Won’t Happen Here,” declaration into the resolution that serves to reinforce the city’s policies. The draft resolution will be sent to the city manager and city attorney before it’s released for public review, she said, though she indicated it will not include the “sanctuary” language.

“We’re trying to put people’s minds at rest – there’s a lot of concern in certain portions of the community about what some of these new policies mean and quite frankly, people are frightened,” she said. “We’re just trying to affirm that they’re safe.”

More than 900 Petaluma residents signed a petition urging the council and other local governments to adopt the resolution, part of what Tuttelman describes as a larger uprising by Petaluma groups as Trump has signed executive orders to build a border wall, hire more border patrol agents, increase numbers of immigration officers who conduct deportations and restrict travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“I think that is really critical that every one of the council members looks into their hearts and really think about how they will explain to a young person in 2020 about what they did today … I understand threats from Trump and I understand that the council members have a wide variety of responsibilities, but at the end of the day, we expect council members to act out of principal and not give into bullies and threats,” he said.

Acknowledging the shock waves sent though the community by the shifting immigration policies, Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said that his department doesn’t and won’t engage in federal immigration enforcement activities. He said officers don’t ask for an individual’s immigration status and his department will only collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents when the investigation involves “serious or violent offenders.”

“I want to reaffirm our commitment to working with everyone here to make the community safe and healthy and taking care of the community and all families regardless of whether or not they are documented citizens,” he said in remarks following his swearing in ceremony at the Feb. 6 council meeting.

Despite Savano’s assurances, a number of speakers at the meeting still vocalized concern, including Zahyra Garcia, who spoke of her experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant in Georgia while living in fear of ICE agents, who eventually arrested her father.

“We need our elected officials to be a voice to those who cannot have one … we need our elected officials to stand up to Trump,” she said.

Mehtab Khan of the Islamic Center of Petaluma urged the council to take a stand.

“We are fortunate to live here in Sonoma County, which is a very liberal and accepting community but let’s not be complacent,” he told the council.

As state lawmakers push to advance legislation to make California a “sanctuary state,” Mayor David Glass said it’s unclear what the city’s vocal declaration might mean for federal funding. The city already adheres to the California Trust Act, legislation enacted in 2014 that limits local jails from holding people for extra time so they can be deported.

“I don’t know how you quantify and analyze an irrational, idiotic threat balanced up against rational thought,” he said of potential funding cuts.

The city receives nearly $3 million in federal funding annually, primarily though U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation grants, Miller said.

Though Glass acknowledged that discussion at the Feb. 27 meeting might reveal a divide in the city’s population, he stressed that the resolution won’t signal adjustment of policies.

“We are going to continue with what we have already been doing as a matter of policy,” he said.