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Colorado Democratic leaders say immigrant protections won’t create sanctuary state

ICE says blocking information-sharing impedes agency's homeland security work

DENVER, CO – FEBRUARY 11: Jorge Araiza çvila, center with Broncos hat, holds hand with family, lawyers, faith leaders and sanctuary supporters after his press conference at the Park Hill United Methodist Church that also houses the Temple Micah February 11, 2020. Sherlyn’s father, Jorge Araiza çvila was facing immediate deportation by ICE officials, who claim he is a wanted fugitive and has taken sanctuary in the church along with his family. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
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Democratic lawmakers are tackling a number of issues to protect undocumented immigrants — including from federal agents — but they say their measures stop short of creating a sanctuary state, a label the Trump administration has used to target uncooperative communities for punishment.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, has introduced Senate Bill 83 to prevent ICE agents from entering courthouses to effect civil arrests. She’s also planning to introduce a bill that would prevent disclosure of information to ICE from state databases, including the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“In each of the policies that we’re putting forward, there are really clear delineations about the role of the state in setting forward the parameters as to how each of the agencies will operate,” Gonzales said.

Colorado has come a long way since Gabriela Flora first moved here 16 years ago. Flora, the Denver Immigrant Rights Program director at the American Friends Service Committee, cited as an example the state legislature’s 2006 passage of a bill — repealed in 2013 — that required police to report anyone they arrested and suspected of being undocumented to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, undocumented immigrants can get driver’s licenses.

“I see these policies as a step forward, where we can actually allow people to fully contribute to our society,” Flora said.

But, she said, there are still gaps in protecting immigrants’ rights and quality of life, particularly as 70% of immigrant families are of mixed residency status.

Some conservatives, on the other hand, say Colorado has gone too far, making it a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants, especially after the passage of last year’s House Bill 1124. Despite the bill being watered down to satisfy Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who favors a more moderate approach on immigration reform, the pushback from the Trump administration has been swift.

About $2.7 million in previously approved federal grants was withheld from law enforcement agencies in Colorado, putting smaller rural sheriff’s departments in a bind because of this stance. The state has sued the federal government for the money.

Last month, ICE subpoenaed Denver law enforcement for information on foreign nationals wanted for deportation, but city officials have refused to release the records because the subpoenas weren’t signed by a judge.

And last week, The New York Times reported that the federal government would be sending elite tactical agents from Border Patrol to sanctuary cities, although it’s not clear if Denver is on that list.

Immigrant advocates, including Gonzales, reject the sanctuary label and say their policies do not prevent ICE agents from enforcement. Rather, they prohibit the state from doing the federal agency’s work.

“At no point when ICE goes and gets a real warrant signed by an actual judge do any of these policies preclude ICE from being able to do its job,” Gonzales said.

“You will see exactly zero bill titles this session that say ‘Concerning making Colorado a sanctuary state’ because I don’t think that that’s appropriate and that’s not what any of the policies that I’m putting forward will do,” she said. “At the end of the day, ICE is putting kids in cages and is trying to deflect attention away from that fact.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying organization whose mission is to slow immigration, however, calls Colorado a sanctuary state, as does ICE, which has held press briefings and distributed releases condemning Colorado’s policies.

Although ICE officials wouldn’t comment on pending legislation, a spokesperson said the agency has concerns about any laws limiting information-sharing.

“Introducing politics into law enforcement operations sets us back to the days before the homeland was attacked on 9/11 and ignores the important lessons that law enforcement learned out of that tragedy,” wrote Alethea Smock, spokesperson for ICE’s field office in Denver.

Smock cited a similar law passed in New York, which she said impedes ICE from identifying people who present a risk to national security and hinders agents who are investigating crimes.

Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs — whose party is in the minority — has introduced legislation that would reverse some of the protections passed last year. It would allow local law enforcement to detain a person with a civil immigration detainer who has been ordered to be deported, has been convicted of improperly entering the country or has been convicted of a felony in Colorado and is an undocumented immigrant.

“When you have a sanctuary city policy, you’re essentially creating a magnet for illegal aliens to come and be here,” he said.

Immigration attorneys say “sanctuary state” and “sanctuary city” have no clear meaning and the terms are often used as a scapegoating tactic to detract from ICE’s actions.

Attorney Hans Meyer, who has worked with Gonzales on some of her legislation, disputed the claim that the bills would protect criminals. Instead, they’re about protecting the personal information of residents, he said.

“This (DMV) bill takes important steps toward defending Colorado communities against ICE’s nativist, anti-immigrant agenda,” Meyer said in a statement. “The Trump administration has declared open war on immigrants, including DACA recipients, immigrant families, and women and children fleeing persecution. It is past time for Colorado to protect its residents — particularly those who trust Colorado government agencies with their personal information — from the administration’s deportation machinery.”

At a news conference last week in which immigration advocates announced another person had taken sanctuary in a church and synagogue to avoid deportation, attorney Bryce Downer of Novo Legal said there are numerous misconceptions about what constitute sanctuary policies.

Downer’s client, Jorge Araiza Ávila, is one of four undocumented immigrants in Colorado taking sanctuary.

Immigration attorneys say despite the federal issues, they’re pleased by Colorado’s progress. Here are other bills in the works this session:

  • Senate Bill 108, a Gonzales bill that prevents landlords from collecting information about a tenant’s immigration status and disclosing or threatening to disclose that information to authorities, has passed the Senate.
  • Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, has introduced House Bill 1088, which sets a timeline for local and state agencies to complete or deny a certification request for immigrants who are applying for a U Visa from the federal government. U Visas are granted to immigrant victims of crime or those who help with the prosecution of crimes. The bill also limits disclosure of information to ICE.
  • Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, is working on a bill to create oversight of the immigration detention center in Aurora. She also introduced House Bill 1241 with Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, to allow the state to issue professional teaching licenses to immigrants with lawful residency and employment authorization.
  • Commerce City Democrat Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet is working on a bill that would create an immigrant legal defense fund and provide matching state money.

Many of the bills are narrowly focused, Gonzales-Gutierrez said, but they make policies consistent. Sponsors see the bills as beneficial to all Coloradans.

“There is still tremendous fear that exists within the community,” Gonzales said. “That’s why we continue to move forward. At the end of the day, I really do believe that Coloradans believe in fairness and that Coloradans believe in justice.”

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