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YWCA Leader Tries to Shift Welcoming City Focus Back To Immigrants

Cristian Jaramillo
YWCA McLean County's D. Dontae Latson at a community solidarity rally sponsored by Not In Our Town in 2017.

One of the lead proponents of a Welcoming City ordinance says he wants to turn the public’s focus back to those who’d most be affected by it—undocumented immigrants whose daily lives are filled with fear about being deported.

YWCA McLean County President and CEO D. Dontae Latson said he’s disappointed to see discussion about the issue dominated by personal and political disagreements among the Bloomington City Council. Latson said quarrels between the mayor and aldermen—about hurt feelings and who said what about who—were a costly distraction.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the narrative has changed and we’re not talking about what actually brought us to the table to begin with, and that is the fears that our immigrant community (lives with),” Latson said. “To me that’s the tragedy in all of this.”

The YWCA is one of several organizations—working as the Keep Families Together coalition—that’s been lobbying the Bloomington and Normal councils to pass a Welcoming City ordinance. Sparked in part by the Trump administration’s tougher stance on immigration, the ordinance would restrict the ways in which local police could cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency on deportation.

During an interview on GLT’s Sound Ideas, Latson also doubled down on the YWCA’s criticism of Alderman Karen Schmidt, who was one of five aldermen who signed the Feb. 5 email asking to pull the Welcoming City ordinance from an upcoming council meeting. Calling the email an “opposition letter,” the YWCA called out Schmidt publicly in a Facebook post and said it was surprised to see her sign it given her past statements.

At the Feb. 12 council meeting, Schmidt said she’s been “demoralized” by the criticism she’s faced over the issue. Schmidt, a longtime community servant and former member of the Not In Our Town steering committee, said she does want to continue discussions (including with Normal) and didn’t rule out the possibility of an ordinance.

Latson said Schmidt is sending mixed messages about whether she wants to continue talking about the ordinance. The Feb. 5 email appears to close the door on an ordinance, though it calls for a communitywide conversation to “identify other avenues to support the residents who feel vulnerable.”

Latson said the email and subsequent comments by aldermen are difficult to reconcile.

“I think what is written (in the Feb. 5 email) is how they really feel,” Latson said. “What was said in public comment is a way to clean it up.”

Schmidt was unavailable for an interview this week. But in a statement she said she was “committed to creating a welcoming community” throughout McLean County.

“Following the discussion of the initial Welcoming City ordinance at the BCPA, a revised ordinance was prepared that affirmed that BPD follows the Trust Act,” said Schmidt, a past recipient of the Multicultural Leadership Program’s Community Service Award. “This revision raised a number of questions about the need for the ordinance. At that time it became clear to a majority of aldermen there would be no opportunity for further work sessions on that topic before the item would be put on an agenda for consideration. Shortly before the next meeting, we learned of another iteration of the ordinance which we had no time to vet.

“I remain committed to creating a welcoming community, and working with groups across Bloomington, Normal and McLean County to create a safe environment for everyone,” Schmidt added. “Bloomington-Normal repeatedly shows that we are a loving and supportive community that is willing to work together to educate and to support our neighbors, wherever they come from.”

More Discussion Needed?

Latson was also critical of Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe, who signed the Feb. 5 email. A week later at the council meeting, Mwilambwe reopened the door for an ordinance, saying it “could be one of many solutions” and that more discussion was needed.

“Let’s have a conversation. Let’s try to figure this out together,” Mwilambwe said.

Latson said the council has debated this for more than a year. It’s time to vote, he said.

“When it’s not directly impacting your family, you can take as much time as you want,” Latson said.

Latson also pushed back against a claim in the Feb. 5 email that “misunderstandings about this ordinance have the potential to cause our immigrant community further harm.”

"Having the discussion has not caused an even deeper divide. Failure to have the discussion is what's causing the divide."

“Having the discussion has not caused an even deeper divide. Failure to have the discussion is what’s causing the divide, because people feel a strong way, they felt that way. And we have someone in (the White House) who creates greater strain and stress for our residents and the people we say we care about,” Latson said.

There currently doesn’t appear to be a five-vote majority on the Bloomington City Council to pass the ordinance. In Normal, Mayor Chris Koos said this week he’d prefer to see five of seven Town Council members support it before bringing it to a vote. The town was meeting this week with the Keep Families Together coalition.

Latson said he’s encouraged by what he’s hearing so far from Normal.

“We have to have leaders who are not afraid to be honest. There are gonna be some things where people just don’t agree. And that’s OK. What we don’t want—just don’t tell us one thing and then go and do something completely different. Because if you do, you’re gonna hear from us,” Latson said.

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Full segment from GLT's story.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.