Limiting Cooperation With ICE: Denver Considers Bill to Protect Undocumented Immigrants

Under President Donald Trump, there has been a marked increase in immigration enforcement in Colorado.
Under President Donald Trump, there has been a marked increase in immigration enforcement in Colorado. Brandon Marshall

This morning, Denver City Council members Robin Kniech and Paul Lopez introduced a draft of a bill that they’ve been working on that would codify and clarify Denver’s practices around federal immigration enforcement and interacting with ICE.

Kniech and Lopez held a listening session with the public to answer questions about the proposal, which includes codifying some informal practices that Denver already follows, such as not honoring ICE detainers (when the feds ask local jails to hold inmates past their release dates) and not collecting information about residents’ immigration status except in cases where it's required by state or federal law.

The draft also satisfies some of the requests of immigrant-rights advocates, including directing the Denver Sheriff Department to not voluntarily notify ICE of the release dates of low-level offenders and preventing ICE from accessing private areas of jails unless agents present signed warrants.

Below is the full draft of the bill, titled "The Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act":

Summary Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act (2017 07-14)

Kniech and Lopez hope to have a final version of the bill by August 2, after they’ve gotten input from other councilmembers and the Denver City Attorney’s Office.

Immigration enforcement is a political hot potato. On April 27, immigrant-rights advocates, including members of the Meyer Law Office, introduced a sanctuary-city policy before a standing-room-only crowd in Lincoln Park. At that event, the policy director at Meyer Law, Julie Gonzales, specifically pressed Councilman Lopez about whether he’d support their proposal. Lopez answered, “Yes. I will work to move this forward. I can’t promise you, though, that every single word of it will make it through to the end. We’ll fight for everything that we can.” Kniech, who was also in attendance, nodded in agreement.

Mayor Michael Hancock, the City Attorney’s Office, and City Council have initiated a few policies on their own during the past few months. In May, Denver approved a sentencing reform bill that reduced the maximum sentence for certain low-level offenders to 364 days rather than 365 days (at which point ICE is automatically notified when an offender is undocumented). And to counter ICE agents conducting arrests inside Denver’s courthouses, Denver has instituted a plea-by-mail option for certain violations (like traffic offenses) so that people don’t have to physically report to the courthouse and risk a run-in with ICE agents.

The draft proposal that was introduced this morning contains some of the components that immigrant-rights advocates asked for at the meeting in April, such as limiting data collection of undocumented immigrants, voluntary notifications of jail releases to ICE, and access to sensitive areas. Still, "sanctuary" is noticeably absent in Kniech and Lopez’s draft bill.

“There is no legal definition of that word beyond the Attorney General [Jeff Sessions’s] definition, which is that a sanctuary city is one that doesn’t comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373, a very particular federal code section that requires cities to provide information if they have it on immigration status," Kniech told Westword before Wednesday's meeting. “We comply with that law now and will comply with it even if this bill passes,” she adds.

Asked whether she’s concerned that the federal government would see this bill as Denver declaring itself a sanctuary city, Kniech replied, “I can’t control impressions, but I am very confident — and the [federal] courts have been very clear about this — that we’re in full compliance with federal law." The councilwoman also says that Denver shouldn’t hold back on passing this bill in fear of retribution from ICE.

“We’ve already seen a total disregard for public safety and the communications from the city about sensitive areas, so at this point I think we need to focus on what our residents need,” she says. “We can’t get into the game of predicting what others will do, and our first priority is public safety and addressing the fears of our communities.”

Lopez adds that the bill is necessary because many of his constituents have been “absolutely terrified.”

“Our community members don’t know what to expect...and we’re trying to ensure that when you call the police or you come down to the city to pay a parking ticket or get a building permit, that you can count on the city being a safe place," he says. "Our city is better off when folks are not afraid to call the police when they’re a witness or victim to a crime."

While the councilmembers know that their proposal will be contentious — and that some immigrant-rights advocates will say that it doesn’t go far enough — they both hope to convince the public and other members of the city council that it’s a step in the right direction.

Kniech and Lopez point out that they're aware of at least 650 municipalities that follow some of the policies being proposed in their bill.

“The good thing is that Denver is not alone,” says Lopez. “The fear is happening throughout the country, and this is something that I know other municipalities and cities and states are addressing on their own, so I think it’s important that we pay attention to what’s going on nationally. At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in Denver.”

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker