Councilman López on Why Denver Needs a Legal Defense Fund for Immigrants

A demonstrator at a recent rally in Denver for undocumented immigrants.
Brandon Marshall
A demonstrator at a recent rally in Denver for undocumented immigrants.
On Monday, November 6, Denver City Council voted 9 to 4 to approve $200,000 for an immigrant legal defense fund. It was a $100,000 increase over what Mayor Michael Hancock originally budgeted for the initiative, which he enacted through executive order on August 31 as a supplement to another bill that limits the city’s cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

The idea of using public dollars to provide legal representation to individuals in immigration cases is not unique to Denver. There are handful of other cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, that already have such programs. Given the complexity of immigration law, a Vera Institute of Justice study found that, after New York City provided universal legal representation, ten times as many immigrants there won their cases, including some involving deportation proceedings. A similar study published by the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that ten times as many immigrants won cases, and five times fewer people were deported.

Still, such initiatives are contentious — as evidenced even during last week’s council meeting. Not only was there concern that tax dollars might be deployed to defend undocumented residents accused of carrying out violent crimes, but there were questions around how the fund will operate.

To find out more about the fund, its mechanics and next steps, we spoke to Councilman Paul López, who has been spearheading the initiative and urged the mayor to issue his executive order in August.

Westword: Councilman, let’s begin with the purpose of the immigrant legal defense fund. Why is this something Denver needs?

Paul López: The main purpose is to keep families together. You want to make sure that people have access to due process under the law. That's where we know the immigration system is broken — but we can help make sure that that due process is extended to every person.

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Denver City Councilman Paul López in a photo from his Facebook page.
What about the concern, brought up by Councilman Kevin Flynn last week, that city funds will be used to defend undocumented immigrants who have committed violent or serious crimes?

Not every immigrant is some kind of criminal. You're not just looking at immigrants who are in jail or awaiting deportation. There are folks who are in our communities who may qualify for residency — because there are qualifiers out there. But because they don't have access to legal representation, they may not know that they already qualify to legally stay in this country.

How is the fund going to work? My understanding is that the budgeting decision last week happened before anyone agreed upon the details of how this will operate, correct?

This is what council does every November, to determine the following year's budget — that's why it's happening now. We do that for everything in our budget; it's a projection. So we don't need to have it spelled out to a T — that happens later. Budgeting is our responsibility. I'd rather do that now, through the normal process, than dig it up later.

As for how the fund works, we’re not ready to announce anything yet; we’ll have recommendations for the mayor to consider by mid-December. [But] we've been working since August with different committees, nonprofits and legal participants to look at different models. We're considering everything. I've been in touch with folks from Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

Are you swaying toward any particular model for the defense fund, though? For instance, New York’s is based on providing money to nonprofits that already work in immigration law, while San Francisco has actually hired immigration lawyers to work in their public defenders' offices. Is Denver leaning in any particular direction?

I want to respect the process. It’s just too early to determine that. We're looking at all of [the other cities’ models].

Okay, but do you have any idea how far the $200,000 that city council just budgeted for 2018 will stretch? New York has sunk more than $10 million into their fund. Will $200,000 give everyone in Denver legal representation?

Of course not. You have to understand, $200,000 is not the end all, be all. Denver just needs to have skin in the game. We can't expect the nonprofits to do this without us having skin in the game. $200k may seem small compared to New York or L.A., but for us, it's a very important start, philosophically. It's one thing to talk about supporting immigrants and being welcoming, it's another thing to put your money where your mouth is. And the city council and the Mmayor are doing the latter.

What kind of message do you think this fund sends to President Trump and the federal government?

That we're not going to be bullied or pushed around, and we're going to use every instrument in our toolbox to make sure that's the case.

A lot of people have asked me, 'What the hell business is it of a city councilman to do this?' Well, it wasn't, until Trump was elected. It wasn't, until we saw our neighbors being threatened and our kids crying because they're afraid to go to school. In 2016, we had this feeling of defeat, not just necessarily because of the presidential race, but so many wondered: What can we do to support immigrants in Denver? So some people marched, some people organized, some people [conducted] 'know your rights' presentations. And some folks said, ‘Can I write a check to somebody?’

We want to be able to harness that, so that $200k can grow to $1 million, $2 million, $3 million.

Legal representation for new Americans is just as important as putting asphalt on a street.