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After controversial flier, Burien neighbors fight back with 'love letters'

A few days after a controversial flier circulated in Burien, a neighborhood group is fighting back with a mass mailing of their own.

The flier that started uproar came from a group called Respect Washington and listed names and addresses of people who are allegedly undocumented and accused of crimes.

In response, a group of Burien neighbors are writing what they call “love letters” to the immigrants targeted.

Burien Resident Kerri Gibbard Kline opened her home Monday night for a letter writing party, while similar gatherings happened across town.

“It is up to us to show the people who are behind this hatred that they are not welcome here and they are not representative of the majority of us who live in Burien,” said Gibbard Kline, who moved to Burien last year.

Parents, teachers, lifelong residents and newcomers filled the living room and kitchen and started to write to their undocumented neighbors.

“Dear Burien Neighbor, we are sorry that Respect Washington published your address,” Rebecca Dare read from her handwritten letter as she sat at the kitchen table.

Dare has lived in Burien 40 years and says she’s never seen such political turmoil here.

“Harsh, divisive, secretive, and heartbreaking,” Dare said. “Really heartbreaking.”

Latinos now make up roughly 20 percent of Burien’s population; up from just 10 percent in the 2000 census. The growth has clearly drawn more attention to local issues of immigration and inclusion.

In the past year, Gibbard Kline said she’s watched the tensions rise.

“There are folks here who drive down the streets with confederate flags. There are people who make death threats to our progressive city council candidates. My wife was putting out a Black Lives Matter sign earlier this year and from the dark, from across the street, somebody shouted ‘white power.’”

“This is where the real fight is and I’m so glad we have supportive community members here,” said Guillermo Mogollan, a UW student and DACA recipient who also attended the letter writing party.

Carrie Howell, a teacher in the Highline School District, said she wanted to write these letters as a way to "fight bullies," and ensure Burien continues to be a welcoming and safe place for her students.

This neighborhood gathering comes after a long and emotional struggle in Burien to pass a so-called sanctuary ordinance. The measure prohibits city staff from asking about a person’s immigration status or religion, among other things. The Trump Administration has threatened funding cuts to sanctuary jurisdictions that hinder the efforts of federal immigration enforcement.

Following the Burien ordinance, Respect Washington led an effort to repeal it and a similar measure in Spokane. Respect Washington and founder Craig Keller have long pushed for legislation to crackdown on illegal immigration, including efforts to deny college financial aid, lottery winnings and driver’s licenses to non-citizens.

Public documents, first reported by The Stranger, also show Respect Washington is partially funded by U.S. Inc., a Michigan-based organization founded by John Tanton. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that tracks hate groups, reports that Tanton has long been linked to racist views, espoused eugenics, and "spent decades at the heart of the white nationalist movement."

More than 3,600 Burien residents signed Keller’s petition to put the repeal to a public vote, but judges in both Spokane and Burien ruled against it, saying the matter is beyond the scope of the initiative process. Keller says he is appealing that decision.

Keller defended his crime map flier as free speech, and said it was not meant to incite violence or hate.“There was nothing but good and progress intended with this letter,” Keller said. “There’s a heightened interest, of course, because we as citizens want to have a say in our government.”Keller said the fliers are intended to inform voters ahead of the upcoming November election. They also came with a letter endorsing four Burien City Council candidates, all of whom have since denounced the fliers and stated they have no affiliation with Respect Washington.

“I’m not really happy about being targeted like that by any group, whether for or against immigration,” said Jonathan Leblanc, who lives at one of the Burien apartment buildings listed on the flier. “I just don’t think that’s right.”

His message to Craig Keller: “You have no business doing that. You don’t know who lives here.”

Speaking in Burien Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine also decried the flier as “outrageous” and not reflective of Burien’s values.

"This letter demonizes local immigrants, it recklessly includes names and addresses, it is nothing but fear mongering and intimidation straight out of Trump's playbook,” Constantine said. “I am furious.”

Constantine said his staff will work with community organizations to ensure people named in the flier get any help they need.

Law enforcement officials also criticized the flier as irresponsible and potentially harmful.

"Publicly disseminating this type of inflammatory information puts people at risk who likely had no connection to the crime, whether they be family members or new residents of the home," King County Sheriff John Urquhart wrote in a Facebook post last week.

Yet Urquhart has also said the flier does not appear to be unlawful.

“That’s almost certainly true,” said David Perez, a lawyer specializing in constitutional law with the Seattle firm Perkins Coie.

“There are very few restrictions on free speech, and unless this information was defamatory and false in some way – say, it named someone as a criminal when in fact they weren’t, or some other inaccuracy that causes real harm – I don’t see how they could be punished from mailing this out based on the content of the flier.”

In Burien, attention is now focused on a contentious City Council race. Four out of seven seats are up for election, with two Latino candidates in the running.

Hugo Garcia, a Burien resident who supports the sanctuary ordinance, thinks this election will define the future of his city.

"It's the most critical and most important election that Burien's ever had. Right now, half of the folks that are running are very anti-immigrant ... a lot is at stake."

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