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Campaigns Take Shape For And Against Burien Law Protecting Undocumented Immigrants

Will James
Supporters of a Burien law that aims to protect undocumented immigrants disrupt a City Council meeting on July 31, 2017

Voters in Burien will decide the fate of a local law designed to protect the city's undocumented population.

An initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot will ask voters whether they want to repeal the law, which prevents city staff and law enforcement officers from asking about a resident's immigration status or religious beliefs. 

Activists on both sides of the issue are preparing for a fight. 

Leaders of Respect Washington, a statewide group that advocates policies aimed at reducing illegal immigration, worked to get the initiative on the ballot.

They say they will campaign to repeal the law.

"The only thing we're trying to do is restore the Burien municipal code to the way it was before some of these people, these activists, tried to infect it with this prohibition on how police can do their jobs," said Craig Keller, a founder of Respect Washington. 

On the other side,  a group of neighbors calling itself Burien Represent is planning a campaign to save the law.

Hugo Garcia, one of the organizers, said he hopes to get supporters to the polls. But he also wants to educate detractors about what the law does. 

"There's a percentage of folks that are misinformed," he said. "They don't know what it entails and how it really affects Burien."

The Burien City Council passed the law in a 4-3 vote in January. 

Burien residents are just as divided. Recent city council meetings have been full of emotional testimony from both sides.

At a July 31 meeting, chants by supporters of the law caused the mayor to temporarily shut down proceedings. Protests and a council member's filibuster that evening prevented the council from putting the initiative on the ballot.

The city council voted a week later to move the initiative forward over the objections of some residents who wanted to challenge its validity. 

Respect Washington got 3,648 valid signatures on their petition to repeal the law, exceeding a requirement of 3,643 by just five signatures.

Burien leaders initially had a deadline of Aug. 1 to put the initiative on the ballot. King County leaders extended the deadline to Aug. 11 after the first deadline passed, a Burien city spokeswoman said. 

Supporters of Burien's law say it sends a message that undocumented immigrants don’t have to fear calling the police to report a crime or ask for help.

Its opponents say the policy makes it harder for police to fight crime in Burien.

The King County Sheriff’s Department, which provides police services to Burien, says it already has a policy of not asking about a resident’s immigration status. That will stay the same regardless of the outcome in November. 

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