On Wednesday, August 2, members of a City Council committee overwhelmingly approved legislation that would prevent local authorities from cooperating with some of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's efforts to identify and/or deport undocumented residents in Denver. In a public hearing packed with activists, the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee voted six to one to approve the bill, which will head to the full city council later this month.
Along with preventing cooperation with ICE's deportation efforts, the bill also forbids ICE from entering city and county jails without a warrant from a judge. If approved by city council, the move would put an end to the practice of picking up undocumented individuals who are already being held by local authorities, even for petty crimes. The bill does not, however, curb the ICE policy of staking out courthouses, which drew criticism after a video surfaced that showed plainclothes ICE officers arresting an undocumented man in a Denver courthouse.
Immigration activist Salvador Hernandez, a local staffer for the national organization Mi Familia Vota, called the move a "big step forward" toward total protection of undocumented individuals living in Denver.
Particularly concerning to activists is the fear among immigrant communities of interacting with police, made more acute during the Trump administration. Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition spokesman Victor Galvan says undocumented immigrants are reluctant to call police and report crimes for fear that they will be held and turned over to ICE. That fear also extends into the legal system: In June, Westword reported that nine domestic-violence cases had to be dropped because witnesses or victims were afraid to enter a courthouse.
"This is a comprehensive policy that puts public safety in front of federal immigration enforcement," says Galvan. "As we have seen, when people feel safe to call the police, our community is safe — and that includes immigrants."
Bill co-sponsor Paul López echoed those concerns at the hearing. "At the core of these conversations is public safety," he said, "and to restore faith in government and that public trust for everyone in Denver."
That fear is personal for Hernandez of Mi Familia Vota. Hernandez is undocumented, but protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. In 2009, Hernandez was shot five times in an unprovoked assault and left for dead — and when he had to work with police during the following investigation, he says that he was always fearful of deportation. "It always is as an immigrant — it's always something there in the back of your mind," he says. "It sticks with you, like when you are going to courts. And now that has come back in this administration."
The policy would put into law Denver's existing but unofficial refusal to comply with ICE operations in the city, and could be working alongside an executive order released this week by Mayor Michael Hancock. That order would create a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants and provide some of the same restrictions as the bill that is under consideration.
At the hearing, councilmembers called for cooperation with the mayor's office but also resolved to move forward separately with the bill, which would have stronger legal protections than an executive order, which the next mayor could void.
But some councilmembers were concerned that more cannot be done to prevent ICE from operating in Denver, as well as the potential backlash from the Trump administration if the bill becomes law. "It won't stop ICE from going into courthouses... or schools," said councilwoman Kendra Black. "I don't want to give anyone a false sense of security."
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But councilman Paul Kashmann said that even if the city cannot offer more protections to undocumented immigrants, the bill is the right place to start. "This bill doesn't give the ultimate safety I wish we could give," he said, "but it is the right step forward."
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who co-sponsored the bill, agreed. "If it's good enough for the community, it's good enough for me."
An ICE representative told Westword that the agency does not comment on pending legislation.