By the time I pulled into the Hillsboro Civic Center parking lot, it was packed with police-decaled Crown Vics and mom vans. I had to park across the street at the post office, and all that remained in the auditorium was standing room only. As I rushed around the Hogwarts labyrinth of concrete staircases looking for an unlocked entrance to the building, I passed at least four huddles of police officers stationed around the exits. Though “stationed” sounds too strict a word—the officers were relaxed, cracking jokes and looking confident they were prepared for whatever was going to erupt at this city council meeting, where the six councilmembers would be voting on whether or not Hillsboro should declare itself a sanctuary city.1 The last meeting shut down early due to disruptions from agitators in the audience who managed to outshout the struggling councilmembers.

Once I finally found the proper entrance, I settled into an open spot along the glass wall that overlooked the auditorium, flanked by a group of high school age Hispanic girls and an impassive police officer. One of the older girls cautioned the group, “If someone asks to talk with you, don’t give your name.” I could hear a man behind me whispering to his wife, translating the meeting into Spanish for her.

An intercom carried the sound from the auditorium into the outer chamber:

“Sanctuary city—that’s a hiding place. Who are you hiding? Muslims? People like that?”

A grey-haired woman with a thick-browed eastern European gaunt had taken the stand and began expounding on the murderous apocalyptic disaster that sanctuary status would bring upon the people of Hillsboro. Her two-minute speech swung wildly from analogy to analogy, all of which implied the Hillsboro City Council belonged to an Obama-led, globe-spanning Illuminati-like cabal of hell-bent elitist intellectuals, and finally ended with her urging the councilmembers to look at the maps she’d printed for all of them to closely study and consider. The maps apparently depicted a theoretical2 Palestinian invasion of Israel, and were somehow supposed to tie into an epic all-encompassing narrative about criminality, immigration, neighbors, religion, national security, and the destiny of the United States.

I honestly didn’t know people like her existed in real life, much less in my hometown. She spoke like one of those rage-fueled, fucked-up Facebook commenters who can hide behind their “Don’t Tread on Me” profile pictures and Trump-as-messiah memes. I thought that sort of talk was an Internet phenomenon born out of the ability to be anonymous, but here I was, witnessing it in real life. I wasn’t sure how off-the-rails the city council meeting was going to be, but I started to guess the stereotype Parks and Recreation portrayed had some measure of truth, and that increasingly familiar wave of depression about the prospects of American democracy flooded over me.

* * * *

This public forum section of the council meeting is usually at the end, but since the council knew the sanctuary city debate was going to be contentious, they smartly moved it to the beginning. Normally, the entire meeting lasts only an hour, from 7 p.m. till 8 p.m. Tuesday’s itinerary looked normal enough on the surface: consideration of the Transportation Committee’s recommendations to adopt new standards, awarding a construction contract to rebuild a street near the airport, announcements of new appointments to the Library Board… All of these were instantly tossed straight out the window in favor of addressing the colossal, sign-wielding elephants in the room. Public forum is only one of ten bullet-points of the hour-long meeting, but it lasted over three hours—three hours of discussion before any of the councilmembers said anything, other than Mayor Steve Callaway, who announced the names of people called up to speak and politely told them to leave when their time expired.

The haze of my depression began to burn off once I started looking around the auditorium at the people in it. Despite the forum’s initial frontload of crackpot conspiracy conservatives, there was a powerful mosaic of perspectives and histories in the room: Hispanic parents and their families, coming to prove to their children the importance of political engagement; teachers and high school students, who spoke on behalf of themselves, their parents, or their classmates; Bible-ready religious leaders3 from Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism; lawyers and business professionals presenting stolid, rational arguments to bolster the intense emotional appeals; husbands, wives, and teens who were there reluctantly, and sat in the back playing Words with Friends or Candy Crush on their phones; and that once-invisible cross section of white working class folk who carried the 2016 presidential election. Even the local chapter of the Enemy of the People, KATU News, showed up to cover the meeting.

Being part of any crisis-crafted mosaic like this tends to make people more poetic on the stand. My top-three quotes of the night from the public forum:

  • “You can be a good American without that piece of paper.”
  • “There aren’t a lot of Americans who wouldn’t consider themselves a ‘hyphenated-something’.”
  • “They call us Dreamers, but what they don’t know is we’re the ones who never sleep.”

I was proud to come from a community where all sides of a divisive issue could be discussed without devolving into political obstruction or violence. But the undercurrent of these evils occasionally rose up, like the barnacled back of a whale surfacing for air. A comment about “racist police taking the law into their own hands” sent a shiver of tension throughout the room, where a half-dozen police stood posted by the doors and council seats. Hand-painted signs screamed, “ICE, STOP HUNTING PEOPLE”. One Hispanic man spoke of the sleep he’s lost, afraid of waking up at 4 a.m. with “Them” at the door. A common narrative rooted in fear and anxiety developed, with pro-sanctuary folks feeling like they or their neighbors were being treated like hunted animals, and anti-sanctuary folks feeling like their familiar community was becoming alien to them.

* * * *

The council’s vote was expected to be a 3-3 tie, which the mayor would have to break one way or the other. Here’s how it went down:

  1. Fred Nachtigal, elected in 2012 and 2016, a retired estate planning attorney, after expressing his support for immigrants but hesitation for a city government to address immigration: “I hope we never go here again.” NAY.
  2. Olivia Alcaire, elected in 2016, a PhD-pursuing advisor at Portland Community College: “We should not be afraid of our president.” AYE.
  3. Rick Van Beveren, appointed in 2015 and elected in 2016, president of Reedville’s Café off TV Highway: “I don’t think this is the right forum for this debate.” NAY.
  4. Anthony Martin, elected in 2016, an economic consultant for a Lake Oswego firm and member of the Budget Committee: “[The resolution] reaffirms the city’s commitment to diversity.” AYE.
  5. Darell Lumaco, elected in 2014, the city council president and local ophthalmologist, after voicing similar reluctance as the previous nay-voters: “Nevertheless, here we are.” NAY.
  6. Kyle Allen, elected in 2014, a field director for Working America (a local affiliate of the labor giant AFL-CIO): “Words matter.” AYE.

And, with the room collectively holding its breath, the tiebreaker:

  1. Steve Callaway, mayor, a former elementary school principal: “This is a vote for children…There are no spare parts in Hillsboro.” AYE. The resolution passes.

A scattered standing ovation drowned out whatever the mayor said after he announced his vote.

* * * *

On my way out of the auditorium, I stopped to talk with a couple goateed police officers chatting by the elevator of the parking garage. I asked one of them—a sergeant who’s served Hillsboro for more than 20 years—when the last time there was a response this large to a municipal issue. The sergeant told me it hasn’t been like this since Hillsboro debated reorganizing its annoying downtown one-way streets into two-ways.4 Not exactly a hot button, earth-shattering, identity crisis-forming issue, but an important one for a local government to figure out.

Yet here we are, in our local city halls across the United States, debating issues like immigration and climate change. All the councilmembers who voted against the sanctuary city resolution cited the fact that it wasn’t the local government’s job to deal with immigration.

The reservations of the councilmembers are understandable. Both constitutionally and practically, local governments should not be expected to tackle national issues like immigration. However, when contentious national issues have festered for so long at the top of the queue, they tend to slosh down to the lower levels.5 State and local governments now must confront immigration out of necessity.

This phenomenon, taken as an index of federal government incompetence, would otherwise be distressing, but it could actually be an opportunity to restore a measure of sovereignty to our local communities. Coupled with the rapid and decentralizing evolution of modern technology, cities have greater potential than ever to produce governance systems responsive to the will of the people. Washington could use a little inspiration right now.

# # #

1 As per the definition listed on the meeting pamphlets: “A city that is committed to providing a safe community for all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or immigration status, and ensures that all members of our community are safe and can call upon public safety assistance whenever necessary, without being questioned about federal immigration laws and without fear of reprisal based solely on legal status, in accordance with Oregon State Law.” I.e., Oregon is already a sanctuary state, so the resolution is more of a symbolic gesture of support.

2 Theoretical to most people, maybe, but I got the impression she believed this was already happening.

3 I was surprised to see a nearly even count of religious leaders on either side of the resolution. The narrative of national politics usually cedes religion to the right, but there was a significant turnout from the religious left.

4 These one-way streets are the nightmares of every 16 year-old in Hillsboro trying to get their driver’s license. Every time someone failed the test, it was almost always because he or she got caught up in the tangled crisscross of those one-ways, some of which are four lanes wide. Many of the repeat failures went to take their tests in Sherwood where the roads were simple and unpopulated (this should tell you why the one-way street debate was as historically controversial as it was). I got lucky during my test—a chunk of Hillsboro’s eternal road construction forced my proctor to change my route on the fly, and so we ended up sailing easily along some straightforward backroads.

5 Sadly, climate change also fits this profile. City governments across the nation are taking the matter into their own hands: an ambitious roof-top solar program rolled out in Berkeley, California, a greenhouse gas-slaying plan cooked up by Boston, Massachusetts, a thousand-mayor commitment to combat climate change led by Seattle, Washington, etc.

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