PORT TOWNSEND — When Morris and Ruth Goldstein crossed the border, they had little in the way of documents. What these immigrants did have: hope for a better life than what they’d been through in Poland and Russia.
And so they went on to find work and home, raising a family in these United States. Morris regularly sent blankets and other supplies back to his Polish Jewish brethren in Eastern Europe, in hopes of helping those who hadn’t yet gotten out of a hostile place.
Ruth and Morris’ American family includes daughter Libby Palmer of Port Townsend. She seeks to carry on her late parents’ work, nearly 100 years after they arrived on Ellis Island, N.Y.
In a Port Townsend cafe on a recent afternoon, Palmer explained her hopes for her community: that parents and children live here together in peace and safety, as she does.
Palmer is a cofounder of the Jefferson County Immigrants Rights Advocates — JCIRA — which despite its name seeks to help migrants in Clallam County as well.
The registered nonprofit organization, which sprang from discussions after the first Women’s March in Port Townsend in 2017, offers support to people fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse and grinding poverty in their homelands of Mexico and Central America.
For Palmer and her fellow advocates, JCIRA is a way to connect, human to human, with her neighbors — outside the rhetoric swirling around national immigration policy.
Many Spanish-speaking migrants watch Univision, “all negative, national news,” Palmer said. But the residents of Port Townsend, she believes, do not walk in lockstep with what’s on the TV.
With JCIRA, she has found kindred spirits, people who want to help. The first meeting drew 12 people, the second 18, and now the mailing list has 180 people and counting. Palmer encourages those who want to join to email [email protected] JCIRA can also be reached at P.O. Box 47, Port Townsend, WA 98368.
The advocates also have received a welcome from Jefferson Transit, which this spring posted on its 11 buses JCIRA’s “Do you need immigration help?” signs in English and Spanish, along with its 360-531-2656 hotline.
Thanks to about 10 JCIRA volunteers, the hotline is staffed day and night. Callers, who can remain anonymous, will find an ally on the other end, an advocate ready to help find assistance with visas, green cards, citizenship and possible legal representation.
Palmer and Katie Franco, another JCIRA cofounder, say they have spoken with immigrants who are afraid, daily, of federal agents picking them up and sending them to a detention center away from their jobs and children.
“A lot of people are scared. I know one mother of two DACA sons, in Port Townsend. She’s very worried,” said Franco, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy established by former President Barack Obama. Under President Trump, DACA’s future is uncertain.
Palmer remarked on the case of Maria-Elena Perez and her family, whom Peninsula Daily News contributor Zorina Barker wrote about in her May 15 “West End Neighbor” column.
Perez was born in Mexico; she fled in 2004. She and her husband and their four children live in Forks, where Perez attends church with Barker.
Perez has received correspondence from Immigration and Customs Enforcement notifying her that her work permit renewal and petition for a stay of removal are denied; her scheduled deportation date is July 2.
Perez has an attorney in Olympia, Barker said. Perez hopes to persuade a judge to allow her to remain with her children: a daughter at Forks Middle School, a son in kindergarten at Forks Elementary School, and two grown sons who graduated from Forks High and went to work.
JCIRA extends its hand to people like Perez as they navigate immigration laws and paperwork. With help from Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center advocates who have completed the certification, JCIRA members are working toward becoming Department of Justice accredited representatives: allies who help immigrants and refugees chart a way forward, while keeping their families together.
At the Rhody Grand Parade last month, a small group of JCIRA supporters marched in the bright sunshine, carrying signs with messages such as “May ALL Families Be Safe & Secure (Yes, Even Yours).” Franco wore a Statue of Liberty robe and crown — “that’s my shy, retiring self,” she joked — and walked through loud cheers from spectators.
“We were all pleasantly surprised at the response along the route,” she said.
“There was one negative comment: Somebody shouting out ‘illegals.’ But overall it was heartwarming to hear the applause.”
On a snowy morning back in February 2017, the Jefferson County Commissioners approved a human rights proclamation stating that county elected officials are committed to protecting dignity and equality for all, “regardless of age, race, national origin, immigration and citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, religion, creed or mental or physical disability.”
A month later, the city of Port Townsend City Council voted unanimously for a “Welcoming City” resolution.
Such statements are, however, a long way from federal immigration law. Palmer and Franco emphasize that they are not out to flout its enforcement.
What JCIRA can do, Palmer said, is provide information, give support and “witness what is happening.”
There is a card the advocates hand out. It bears the hotline number, email and regular mailing address; on the back is a script outlining constitutional protections.
“KNOW YOUR RIGHTS,” it reads.
“I do not wish to speak with you or answer your questions. I am exercising my constitutional right under the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution to remain silent. I want to speak to a lawyer before answering any of your questions.
I do not give you permission to enter my home.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.