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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Sanctuary city’ opponents in Spokane receiving legal, financial support from national anti-immigration groups

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 19, 2017

A large crowd, estimated at around 600, gathered Jan. 29, 2017, at Main Avenue and Monroe Street, in downtown Spokane, in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order for an immigration ban. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A large crowd, estimated at around 600, gathered Jan. 29, 2017, at Main Avenue and Monroe Street, in downtown Spokane, in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order for an immigration ban. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A Michigan anti-immigration activist has put thousands of dollars toward efforts to repeal a Spokane law that prohibits police from asking about citizenship.

Spearheading the repeal effort is the political group Respect Washington, based out of Tacoma. The group has a court date Friday in Spokane County to determine the fate of Proposition 1 – an initiative calling for a repeal of the law – which is currently slated for the November ballot. City leaders have argued that the law does not make Spokane a sanctuary city, and refugee and immigration assistance groups have sued to keep what they say is a racist question off the ballot.

Respect Washington recently inherited $10,000 from U.S. Inc., a Petoskey, Michigan-based nonprofit. The firm was founded in 1981 by John Tanton, a retired eye surgeon who the New York Times called “the anti-immigration crusader” in a 2011 profile for his work establishing nationwide organizations pushing for tougher immigration laws.

Tanton also raised eyebrows for his writings on what he termed “passive eugenics” in the 1970s. He is listed as publisher of a quarterly journal called the Social Contract Press, which devoted its most recent issue to theories of overpopulation and concern about the immigration policies in Europe and Canada.

Tanton’s work led the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 to identify his organizations as hate groups and label him a white nationalist. Tanton, along with the Social Contract Press, have accused the nonprofit of demonizing them and misrepresenting their views.

In an email, Respect Washington co-founder Craig Keller promised a legal victory in what he called “a frivolous lawsuit” and called Tanton’s work “a good and honest cause.”

“Every public service organization such as Respect Washington should be so fortunate to receive financial support from this defender of truth and justice for all,” Keller wrote.

Rick Eichstaedt, the attorney representing six Spokane nonprofits challenging the initiative’s inclusion on the ballot, said there was strong support for the original ordinance, noting endorsements from the editorial pages of The Spokesman-Review and The Journal of Business.

“The Spokane establishment is against this,” Eichstaedt said. “Personally, I think it’s a racist type of measure.”

The lawsuit stems from the initiative’s beleaguered history in Spokane. The petition’s initial sponsor, Jackie Murray, withdrew as officials began verifying signatures early last year for inclusion on the 2017 ballot. On advice from the city’s legal advisers, the City Council later voted to put the measure before voters this November. The refugee and immigration assistance groups sued this summer, saying city laws require a petition sponsor and that the laws the initiative seeks to change were already revised as part of a revision of Spokane’s human rights code earlier this year.

Attorney Richard Stephens, former counsel for the Washington House Republican Caucus, is representing Respect Washington. In a response to the lawsuit filed earlier this week, the group argued the initiative met the city’s requirements because it had a sponsor when it was filed and that the changes to the city’s human rights laws were minor enough that the initiative still could be applied.

“This lawsuit seeks to prohibit Spokane voters from exercising their right to vote and right to express their views via the ballot box over a matter of City of Spokane policy,” Stephens’ response reads.

Stephens is working in concert with the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the Tanton-founded Federation for American Immigration Reform. Respect Washington is fighting a battle against so-called “sanctuary city” policies on two fronts, also sponsoring a measure that will be before voters in Burien later this year.

Respect Washington’s filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission do not list any legal expenses or work fighting the lawsuit in Spokane. That’s prompted Eichstaedt to file several complaints with the agency calling for disclosure of how much is being spent, and who is paying, for the legal services Stephens is offering.

“They may not be doing anything” to campaign for the initiative in Spokane yet, Eichstaedt said, “but they’re at least defending it in court.”

City Councilman Mike Fagan, who has been the lone voice of support for the initiative on the panel over the past two years, said he’d counseled Keller to seek legal and financial support outside the state.

“Since all of this started, I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle all the way to the ballot box,” Fagan said.

But Fagan said he wasn’t aware of any of Tanton’s specific writings, though he has quoted from reports prepared by Tanton-backed groups when publicly opposing Spokane’s “non-biased policing” ordinance as recently as March.

“I have no idea who this guy is, what his background is,” Fagan said of Tanton.

Fagan said his continued support for Proposition 1 is based on socioeconomic and criminal justice issues.

“As I’ve said many times in the public, my particular grievance with immigration and whatnot, isn’t racial, isn’t hatred, it isn’t bigotry,” Fagan said. “It’s about respect for the rule of law.”

A local group called No Discrimination Spokane has formed to oppose the proposition this fall. Organizers have raised $1,550 in cash for their campaign, most of it from the Spokane Regional Labor Council and Greenstone Corp., the development firm headed by Jim Frank behind the Kendall Yards revival.

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and an executive committee member of the No Discrimination group, said the focus has been on garnering local support. Moore said the initiative didn’t represent the community and encouraged “bad policing” by discouraging victims of crime or witnesses to speak with authorities.

“It’s an absolute violation of our community’s values,” she said.

Moore said it was vital for opponents to succeed in Spokane because of the national involvement and emboldened groups seeking similar repeals in other U.S. cities and states.

“Our goal is not to just win by a 52 percent. We really want to have a clear decisive statement from our community,” she said.

Spokane Superior Court Judge Julie McKay will hear arguments at 9 a.m. Friday to determine whether the proposal will go forward to the ballot.

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