June 24, 2022
New safe-space resource center would assist immigrants
Kai Uyehara

A welcome mat of flowers greets travelers entering the United States at the Peace Arch U.S.-Canada border crossing. From there, for immigrants, finding essential services can become complicated. Bellingham’s Immigrant Advisory Board has recommended the city establish a new resource center — staffed by and for immigrants — to provide assistance in a safe space.

photo: Kai Uyehara
June 24, 2022
New safe-space resource center would assist immigrants
Kai Uyehara

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Discussion of a proposed immigrant resource center will continue on July 19 when the Bellingham mayor’s office meets with the Immigration Advisory Board. But it may take a village to make the center, described as a safe, single location for noncitizen Whatcom residents, to easily access legal, education and language services, among many others.

The resource center was proposed in a presentation to council on May 9 by a subcommittee of the city’s Immigration Advisory Board. The council expressed interest in the idea and asked the mayor’s staff to develop a budget and organization structure. 

The center’s is envisioned to make essential resources — many that U.S. citizens take for granted — more navigable and accessible to the border county’s immigrant population, said Homero Garrido, a member of the subcommittee and an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico.

Approximately 24,000 Whatcom County residents were born outside the U.S. according to data presented by the Immigration Advisory Board at the May 9 meeting. 

Subcommittee members hope the planning will stay focused on the expressed desires of county residents. “We really need a place for immigrants, by immigrants,” said Australia Tobon, who is also on the subcommittee. She is an organizer for the farm worker rights organization Community to Community Development, and an immigrant herself.

Wide-ranging services

The board heard the need for centralized services from Whatcom’s immigrant community, she said. 

“It’s really intimidating to go and just get a driver’s license,” Garrido said, adding that it’s hard for immigrants to know how to do these things without family who were in the U.S. before to teach them.

The subcommittee hopes the resource center will provide services of many different kinds at one location. Navigating a decentralized array of groups and agencies is difficult for residents who often lack time during the workday, language skills and transportation. 

The proposal presented to the council lists citizenship classes and programs, language services, voter registration and education, community-based organization programs, workforce support and a safe procedure to report workplace issues, racial profiling and discrimination. 

Immigrants could also benefit from services at the center aiding them in public school and college enrollment, and guidance in finding medical professionals, said Garrido.  

Language services could include interpreters for families who currently rely on their children, Tobon said. Legal services could include counsel concerning the complexities of immigration court and knowing worker’s rights and constitutional rights. Immigrants could also obtain identification cards which can help prevent law enforcement from asking them what country they are from, Tobon continued. 

The subcommittee has been researching the program models and best practices of immigrant resource centers in Seattle and other major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Denver and Houston.  

Lending a hand

Regional groups already involved in immigrant support include Community to Community Development (C2C), Law Advocates of Whatcom County, Whatcom Literacy Council, Opportunity Council: Community Resource Center and Northwest Regional Council. All had said they are willing to work with the proposed resource center, but the capacity in which each does so has not been fully fleshed out.

Accessing legal assistance tends to be particularly challenging. 

Tobon outlined several ways that local attorneys or law practitioners could get involved, such as a sharing their knowledge and discounted rates for representation, assisted by law students. 

“In other cities they have future attorneys going into those centers and supporting the work,” Tobon he noted. 

A paid staff attorney might be beyond the center’s initial budget, said immigration lawyer Holly Pai of Harrison and Pai Immigration Law. 

“Probably in the beginning it would be someone just to listen to someone’s concerns and point them in the right direction,” Pai said. Pai has been practicing law in Whatcom County since 2015 and is a member of the Immigration Advisory Board, but is not on the center’s subcommittee.  

A legal adviser at the center could guide noncitizen residents towards reputable and trustworthy attorneys and away from “notarios,” nonlawyers who may advertise as immigration consultants, said Pai. The term notario in many Spanish-speaking countries refers to someone with more advanced legal training than a U.S. notary public. Anyone seeking an attorney should always ask if the individual has a law license, which some immigrants may not know to ask, Pai recommended. 

An immigrant resource center could also hold clinics outside regular workday hours, so attorneys could volunteer outside of their workdays, and those seeking legal services could access it outside of their own. 

Creating trust 

Whatever form a resource center takes, the Immigration Advisory Board wants to help establish relationships among the City of Bellingham and immigrant residents. Recruiting active members of the immigrant community brings their crucial perspective into the center of circles where they can make change. 

“Words don’t create trust, actions do,” said subcommittee member Alfredo Juarez in his presentation at the May 9 Bellingham City Council meeting. “By creating the immigrant resource center, the city shows it welcomes the immigrant. We need to be part of the community completely.” 

Following immigrants’ needs in locating the center could be one example of shaping resources around local knowledge. Ongoing efforts towards civic engagement will also foster accountability between the city and the immigrant community that the resource center aims to serve, Tobon said. 

Law advocates such as Pai have found that centralized locations like downtown Bellingham haven’t proven the most comfortable for people attending legal clinics. High volumes of traffic, difficult parking and the presence of the nearby police department can deter people. A clinic at the Sterling Meadows housing project in northwest Bellingham saw a larger turnout than one at the public library, from Pai’s observations. 

What happens now? 

Bellingham council members shared other logistical concerns at the May 9 meeting, including the wish to avoid overlapping services with existing resources, and the merits of a city versus a county level response.  Council member Lisa Anderson thought the project could benefit from partnership with Whatcom County Council so that people in a wider area might also access the center’s resources. Council member Michael Lilliquist said that smaller cities across Whatcom County might be more inclined to establish immigrant resource centers if Bellingham were to lead by creating their own. 

“We’re so open to either way,” said Tobon, though she and Garrido expressed excitement at seeing Bellingham lead the movement. 

“At the moment, we’re just waiting for the city to give us more details about what is next in the process,” Garrido said. The July 19 meeting with the mayor’s office may provide some of that information. 

For members of the subcommittee, putting in the work to establish the immigrant resource center is putting in the work to building healthy relationships in a diverse community. 

“I think this particular city is grappling with the fact that our demographics are changing,” Tobon said. “We are a well-known agricultural county. We benefit from a lot of the food chain work in our county, from picking food all the way to packaging it, to getting it to the store. We really need to do something to actually take into account our community members who are immigrants.” 

Reported by Kai Uyehara

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