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Aurora Council Immigration Debate Becomes "Political Pissing Match"

Tensions are high on Aurora City Council, headed by Mayor Mike Coffman (left).
Tensions are high on Aurora City Council, headed by Mayor Mike Coffman (left).
Aurora City Council
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We're just a few days into 2021, and members of Aurora City Council have already broken their resolutions to be kind to one another — about ten times over.

"This political pissing match tonight is really embarrassing for this council and really embarrassing for this city," said Councilman Curtis Gardner toward the end of a January 4 hearing on a proposed immigrant legal defense fund ordinance. "I’m just not sure why this group can’t disagree on policy without burning everything to the ground."

The ordinance, which would have set up a modest legal defense fund for Aurora residents detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, ended up failing in a 5-5 vote, with Mayor Mike Coffman voting no to break the tie.

During the meeting, in a heated exchange that radiated through a Zoom screen, Republican Councilman Dave Gruber engaged in a heated back-and-forth with the five Democrats on the council, all of whom voted in favor of the ordinance. "We aren’t talking immigrant community. We’re talking alien community," Gruber said. "We’re not talking about an immigrant defense fund. We’re talking about an alien defense fund."

The members in favor of the ordinance took issue with Gruber's use of the word "alien" to refer to undocumented immigrants, despite Gruber's assurance that it was "simply a legal term."

"This has been a conversation about 'othering' and dehumanizing people. The fact that you know that and keep using that language, sir, speaks volumes," Councilman Juan Marcano said. "I understand it’s an election year, Councilmember Gruber, but this is honestly beneath you."

Following this exchange, Gardner chimed in with his "political pissing match" comment, adding that he'd be voting no on the proposal because he doesn't think it's a function of local government to create this type of fund. Denver has a similar fund in place, with $500,000 earmarked for 2021; Aurora's versions would have started with just $50,000 in city money. Immigrant-rights advocates say that these types of programs are important, since indigent individuals in immigration court have no right to counsel.

Two more Republican councilmembers, Francoise Bergan and Marsha Berzins, agreed with Gardner's argument, saying that they didn't think the fund was a good use of taxpayer money.

In her comments, Berzins added that she had "never experienced [council] acting this disrespectful to each other." It was "embarrassing," she said. "I have seen people make comments that we need therapy."

In addition to rancor between members, the hearing featured a round of dueling expert witnesses, something that's become a common occurrence at Aurora City Council.

The ordinance co-sponsors, councilmembers Alison Coombs and Crystal Murillo, brought in Arash Jahanian, the director of policy and civil-rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office, to testify in favor of the ordinance. Gruber, on the other hand, had invited John Fabbricatore, the Denver field office director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, to answer Gruber's own questions about immigrant detainees and immigration court. Those in favor of the ordinance took issue with Coffman's decision to allow an opposing expert witness, saying that doing so was outside council norms.

Jahanian and Fabbricatore had appeared before Aurora City Council exactly one week earlier, during a hearing on a proposal to enact certain protections for undocumented immigrants, including a provision that would limit city government cooperation with ICE. Council also voted that ordinance down.

During both sessions, Gruber referred to Jahanian as "the Denver lawyer" and implied that Jahanian was testifying in favor of the ordinances because they would bring the Meyer Law Office more business.

At the January 4 hearing, Coombs called out Gruber for his aversion to using Jahanian's actual name, which led to Gruber referring to the expert as "Mr. Jahanian, our friendly Denver lawyer."

Coombs and Murillo say they plan to reintroduce both the immigrant legal defense fund and the immigrant protection ordinances on the council floor later this year.

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