By Martin Kidston
During a recent City Council meeting, Missoula resident Geoff Easton approached the microphone and read his testimony into the record. His words provoked both praise and sharp-tongued criticism.
Easton, a University of Montana graduate and father of a 13-year-old daughter, has formed a grassroots campaign urging the City Council to pass an ordinance declaring Missoula a sanctuary city.
While it’s not a novel concept in today’s polarized America, realizing his goal could test Missoula’s principles of diversity and equality for all.
“I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support, and I’ve had people approach me on the street,” said Easton. “I’ve also gotten hate mail from detractors posted on my Facebook wall. It’s largely driven by a handful of individuals that what to keep going on about it to pester me. It’s not broad, but it’s pretty intense.”
Seated in his southside Missoula apartment sipping a cup of coffee, Easton described the path that led him to approach the City Council and launch his campaign – one he knew would be controversial. It’s a path that likely started after he left Missoula for Los Angeles and Seattle, where he was inspired by the diversity of the metro populations.
But when Easton returned to Missoula to raise his daughter, he was struck by the city’s homogeneous composition, though it played as a passing thought in the back of his mind. It wasn’t until the election of Donald Trump, coupled with the president-elect’s threats to launch a sweeping roundup and deportation of undocumented immigrants, that Easton decided to take action.
“Donald Trump is really vocal about his anti-immigration stance, so taking up opposition to that seems like the natural thing to do,” Easton said. “I’ve always been appreciative of the diversity of America, and I’ve always been pro-immigrant. Missoula is a really wonderful place and it can only get better by diversity.”
Easton’s goals run deeper than diversity alone and turn toward darker chapters of recent history. He recites the 1940s-era poem, “First they came,” written by Pastor Martin Niemoller about the cowardice of Germans following the rise of the Nazi Party.
“First they came for the Socialists, but I was not a Socialist, so I did not speak out,” he said, reciting the words inscribed on the New England Holocaust Memorial. “Then they came for the Jews, but I was not Jewish, so I did not speak out.”
The poem ends, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
“I think hate and demagoguery are a very slippery slope we have to be very vigilant of,” Easton said. “It was actually profound for me at the City Council to take the Pledge of Allegiance, which says ‘liberty and justice for all.’ It doesn’t say for all Americans, or for all natural-born citizens. America is about liberty and justice for all, and that means everyone.”
Easton moved to Missoula at the age of 12 and attended Sentinel High School. His father was a University of Montana administrator and his mother was a teacher. Through UM, he received a degree in philosophy and did graduate work in economics.
Easton left Missoula for Seattle to work for Amazon in its early days. He spent the next few years bouncing between Seattle, Missoula and Los Angeles before returning to the Garden City to raise his daughter, who he admits is more interested in the musical “Hamilton” than she is in politics.
When he talks about sanctuary cities, diversity and equality for all people, regardless of national origin, he does so with his daughter in mind.
“I love Missoula – it’s my home and it’s where I’m raising my daughter,” he said. “But I wish there was more diversity of people living in this town. I wish I could expose my daughter to people of different backgrounds and ethnicities and cultures.”
More than 30 cities across the country have adopted sanctuary status, including large metros, from New York and Los Angeles, to smaller cities like Portland, Maine, and Santa Ana, California.
During his campaign, Trump railed against sanctuary cities and promised to cut off federal funding for any municipality that refused to bend to his demands. Several mayors have already stated their intention to defy Trump on the issue, regardless of his threats.
Easton wants to see Missoula send a similar message.
“It’s an important symbol and I’ll admit, there’s a risk involved in that,” Easton said. “But there are similar communities to Missoula that we could be a part of, and it would send an important symbol to our leaders that this is important to us. It’s a fight worth fighting and a group worth being in.”
Easton believes that undocumented immigrants often feel ostracized by the communities in which they live, largely due to federal laws that force them to live in the shadows. He believes the results have consequences across a range of issues, from engaging in community activities to not reporting crimes for fear of being “discovered.”
He also believes that a large portion of the 3 million undocumented immigrants Trump plans to deport due to their criminal records are only criminal due to illegal entry, not from some other crime.
“They’re law-abiding citizens other than how they arrived in this country,” said Easton. “I understand it’s very controversial. I understand that it’s a very emotion topic for a lot of people. My stance is that it’s way overblown.”
Easton began planning his testimony to the City Council just days before he delivered it. Since then, as his campaign has gained both followers and detractors, he has addressed a meeting of local activists and created a Facebook page called “Sanctuary City Missoula.”
As of Friday, the group had 59 members.
By definition, a sanctuary city is one that adopts local policies that avoid prosecuting someone solely for being an undocumented individual. The term generally applies to cities that do not direct municipal funds or resources to enforce national immigration laws.
That includes policies that forbid local police officers or municipal employees from inquiring about one’s immigration status. Trump has threatened to cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities on his first day in office, scheduled for Jan. 20, 2017.
“I’m taking my time to be very methodical about this, though we’ll become a little more organized and decide on some next concrete steps,” Easton said. “We’ll establish a committee and identify the appropriate committee on the City Council we can then approach to carry this resolution.”
The movement plans to meet in late November and look for a sponsor on the City Council in early December. In a perfect world, Easton said, he’d like to see the issue go before the full City Council before Trump’s inauguration in late January.
Between 2009 and 2015, President Barack Obama removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders – nearly as many as proposed by Trump. When asked if his campaign was politically motivated by a change in party leadership, Easton said he was at fault for not acting sooner.
“Like a lot of people, I didn’t see this coming, and I didn’t see the election of Trump as particularly realistic,” Easton said. “I think the results of the election have shaken me out of my activist lethargy and lit a fire underneath me. I will admit to letting sleeping dogs lie while an ally was in office. Now that things are getting real in terms of a Trump administration, it’s time to be more active.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org