Immigration initiative should have gone to general election

An immigration ordinance was adopted by the San Juan County Council with little citizen opposition on Aug. 15. By adopting the ordinance, the council denied citizens the time to learn about the proposal, debate its merits and vote on it this November.

The ordinance aims to protect undocumented aliens from deportation by preventing the collection of immigration statuses. If county staff doesn’t have this information, it can’t be shared with federal immigration agencies. We support the protection of people in our community no matter their race, gender or religion, but we also believe that the only way a democracy works is to inform voters.

The public hearing on the ordinance left more questions than answers.

The Immigrant Rights Group of the Orcas Women’s Coalition garnered 2,382 signatures for Initiative 2017-07 just before June 30. The council had the option to pass the initiative or allow voters to decide in a general election. Citizens, who were not aware of the proposal, had just three weeks, between council’s first immigration initiative discussion and the public hearing, to learn about it and share comments before the council’s vote.

That was not enough time for citizens to unpack the four pages of complicated references to state and federal laws without the help of public forums, voters’ guides and the press to explain the proposal.

County council members discuss an issue three times before they hold a public hearing and vote. However, there was no discussion at those three prior meetings about how the initiative was written or what local, state and federal laws it could potentially violate. Those three meetings should have been used more wisely.

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord shared his interpretation of the ordinance’s legal violations for the first time, just before the council’s vote. Initiative writer Eleanor Hoague was not allowed to present her counter-argument to Gaylord at that meeting; she was only allowed to answer council’s questions. This created a disconnect, where no one addressed Gaylord’s serious allegations and the ordinance still passed.

Today’s presidential administration creates confusing, broad executive orders and policies; the legality of these orders constantly waivers as courts decide their constitutionality. Now, more than ever, it is important to maintain communication locally and prevent misinformation. In a Democracy, knowledge is power, but in this case, those responsible for educating the public failed to do so before a new local law passed. As a San Juan County voter, I felt uninformed about the issues when leaving the public hearing. As a member of the press, I feel responsible for not providing more information to the public, sooner. Let’s make sure we don’t let this happen again.