Every pew in the small white United Methodist Church at the corner of Del Norte and F streets was filled on Monday evening, with people standing in the back aisles and sitting on plastic chairs in the overflow room. Many fanned themselves with programs. Spanish speakers wore headsets provided by the Humboldt Area Foundation, listening as an interpreter translated presentations by a variety of speakers, the culmination of many conversations between people in the immigrant community and leaders in the True North Organizing Network about how to best protect and serve undocumented people in the community.
The evening opened with a song by the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, introductions and prayers led by Methodist Pastor Kathryn Dunning and Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez. The True North Organizing Network, a regional organization that began three years ago, has been facilitating conversations with marginalized communities on the North Coast, convening in February of 2015
to present findings from what it called “the Season of Listening.” Among the problems identified and discussed at that 2015 meeting were concerns from Latino and undocumented people in the region that they were being targeted and/or harassed by law enforcement.
The Sept. 11 True North Community Action on Immigration meeting was the result of two years of research and conversations with local law enforcement officials. It came in the shadow of a new threat to undocumented people in the United State: President Donald Trump’s call to end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, a presidential order that allowed undocumented people brought to the United States as children to remain, attend school, get work permits and access services. Many public officials were invited to attend, with District Attorney Maggie Fleming, Supervisor Virginia Bass and Eureka City Councilmembers Kim Bergel and Natalie Arroyo sitting in the packed crowd. A panel of law enforcement and emergency service officials — Humboldt Bay Fire Deputy Chief William Reynolds, Lt. Duane Christian of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, and Chiefs Steve Watson (Eureka) and Tom Chapman (Arcata) — sat at the front of the church, facing the crowd.
In an opening statement, True North member Marche Hines spoke to the need to speak out about the suffering of the immigrant community, saying “silence is complicity.”
“This is the moral issue of our times,” she told the crowd, eliciting murmurs of approval.
In his blessing, Hernandez welcomed the crowd to Wiyot land, telling them that his people have traditionally welcomed all immigrants: “Once you’re on Wiyot land, you’re a Wiyot.” Due to genocide, forced migration and forced assimilation, his tribe, he said, understands what it is like to be a “immigrants in our own land.”
Candles were lit in memory of all those who died on the Sept. 11, 2001 and those who were impacted afterward by mass deportation, incarceration and racial profiling. Several speakers told the crowd about their experiences, including a woman whose nephew was deported to El Salvador despite having lived in the United States almost his entire life and not knowing anyone in his country of origin. A woman who was contacted by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement during the 2008 raid on Sun Valley Floral Farms described having guns pointed at her and how she is now afraid of dogs because they were used during the raids. She now has to go to San Francisco every six months to check in at the immigration office, and she never knows if she will will be returning to her child in Humboldt County. As she described her fear and frustration, many people in the audience wept and cleared their throats.
True North leaders then went on to present their research findings, which included information about California Senate Bill 54, a so-called “sanctuary state” bill that would restrict the ability of some local law enforcement agencies to investigate immigration matters. In 2017, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office received 18 detainer requests from ICE; six of those people were eligible for release to ICE, the rest either went to state prison, remained in jail or were released by the courts. True North found that local law enforcement was not well-trained on DACA legislation. An announcement that the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors had expressed support for undocumented community members was greeted with a round of applause from the audience.
Then focus shifted to the law enforcement and public safety officials gathered, who delivered one by one a series of promises to the community.
Pastor Dunning, one of the leaders at the event, said that these agreements came from “months” of research meetings.
“They had all expressed their desire that the immigrant community knows they’re not interested in their immigration status,” she told the Journal
in a phone interview later. “They are interested in protecting all members of the community regardless of where they came from.”
Christian, representing the Sheriff’s Office, agreed to remove the word “alien” from official paperwork referring to foreign nationals. They also agreed to translate the jail inmate handbook into Spanish. HCSO also agreed to consider implementing implicit bias training for its officers; EPD and APD have already committed to doing this training, Humboldt Bay Fire firefighters will be doing an online version. All four agencies stated their commitment to developing and participating in a community panel in January of 2018 “with the purpose of further bridging gaps with the immigrant community.”
In their final statements, the law enforcement officials had two minutes to talk about their goals and reflections. Chapman, perhaps thinking of the continued furor over the death of David Josiah Lawson, and the recent officer-involved shooting on the Arcata Plaza, said “We are charged with the safety of everybody. How do we bridge that gap, help people who don’t feel safe with law enforcement?” He said that when Arcata voted, shortly after the 2016 election, to officially become a sanctuary city, many people questioned the point of the vote, saying it was just symbolic. But the right people, he said, got it.
“They got the message, 'You are safe here,'” he told the crowd.
Reynolds, who later told the Journal
he was “honored” to have been part of the event, spoke about his realization that a uniform is not always a symbol of trust. His father was a firefighter; his mother was a police officer, he always thought everyone felt the way he did.
“As a firefighter for going on 25 years now, I have always assumed that people felt the same way as I did growing up,” he said. “Our uniform is not a political statement nor a place for political statements. ... it is a symbol of service to everyone in our community despite personal beliefs. However, as I’ve learned more over the years, I have learned that my thought that everyone trusts people in uniform is shortsighted and a bit naive. Many members of our communities, whether documented or not, come from countries where a uniform ... any uniform ... can be a symbol of oppression, tyranny, and someone not to trust. They did not have the luxury of trust that I was afforded as a person growing up in this community. Many even in the U.S. have had similar experiences. Some may have even weighed whether or not they should call for help due to that distrust of uniforms. The fact that we haven’t done enough in our community and globally to work harder on building that trust rather than just assuming the trust is unacceptable. We in public service have to work harder with everyone in our community to build that trust and make that same feeling of trust and security available to everyone despite color of skin, cultural background, immigration status, etc.”
Building that trust, having conversations with the immigrant community, he said, will be part of Humboldt Bay Fire’s commitment to serving all people in Humboldt County, so they don’t have to fear seeking help.
When Watson stood to speak, there was a slight hitch in the evening as a young man confronted him about the gun on his hip. While organizers asked the disruptor to adhere to the evening’s ground rules, he confronted Watson about the firearm. Watson replied that police officers are “put in a difficult position sometimes,” and he, too, worries about his safety and the safety of his officers, referring to the recent shooting in Arcata. When the man stormed out, Watson said, “Well, it’s America, and everyone has a right to their opinion.” The crowd applauded.
In his remarks, Watson said he planned to invite someone from the immigrant community to come address his officers with their concerns at his monthly “Meet Your Customers” event, where community members come and address EPD officers at their staff meetings. Councilmember Arroyo later said she was grateful for that offer. Watson spoke about the need to give people “new experiences” with law enforcement, and how important it is for victims to feel they can safely report problems to officers without fear of immigration action.
Leila Roberts of True North called the event a “strong beginning” and the organization’s director, Terry Supahan, closed the evening by talking about his great-grandmother, who was forced to stop speaking Karuk after being sent to boarding school. He talked about resilience and hope.
“We at True North welcome you even if you don’t have a tribal card,” he said, and the audience laughed.
Editor's Note: This blog was updated to correct information about the year True North members presented their findings from its "Season of Listening," and the country to which the speaker's nephew was deported, which was El Salvador, not Mexico. The
Journal regrets the errors.