In an evolving court battle between Denver and the Trump administration, lawyers for the city are pushing back hard against the feds' insistence that the sheriff's department respond to subpoena requests from immigration authorities.
"Service of the subpoenas has nothing to do with a legitimate need, and everything to do with the politics of immigration," the Denver City Attorney's Office wrote in a February 28 federal court filing. "Under the circumstances of this case, forcing [the Denver Sheriff Department] to comply with the subpoenas would force Denver’s law enforcement to become an investigative arm of the federal government in enforcing civil immigration policies in violation of the Tenth Amendment’s anticommandeering doctrine."
That filing is the latest evidence that Denver won't be abiding by Immigration and Customs Enforcement's subpoena requests without a judge ordering the city to do so. However, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado, which is currently representing ICE, is trying to get a judge to do exactly that.
The fight between Denver and ICE became public at the beginning of this year, when ICE sent Denver's interim sheriff, Fran Gomez, multiple subpoenas seeking more information about jail detainees who had either recently been released or were still in custody. The detainees had all been charged with serious offenses, such as vehicular homicide and sexual assault, and had previously been deported. The subpoenas sought the home and work addresses and dates and places of birth of the detainees; they also asked for bond information and any identification documents that the sheriff's department had on file.
ICE officials argued that the agency needed this information because Denver doesn't give ICE enough advance notice when releasing jail detainees that the federal government is interested in deporting.
"Nine times out of ten with Denver, they're already gone," Alethea Smock, a local spokesperson for ICE, told Westword last year. (Neither ICE nor city officials agreed to discuss the current legal action.) In that earlier interview, Smock said that ICE prefers to have local law enforcement agencies hold on to detainees it wants to apprehend for up to 48 hours. But for years, Denver has refused to hold detainees for ICE. And in 2019, the Colorado Legislature supported the city, outlawing that practice throughout the state.
In an email exchange between federal and Denver officials, city attorneys denied claims that the sheriff's department didn't give ICE enough time to apprehend detainees who were being released, and also told ICE that the sheriff wouldn't be complying with the subpoena requests.
In the February 28 court filings, Denver lawyers argue that the subpoenas "reflect an abrupt change from longstanding practice," suggesting that the move is largely political. To support that, they note that Matthew Albence, the acting director of ICE, told reporters at a January press conference that Denver officials should "show up to court with a toothbrush, because they might not be going home that night, because they could be jailed for failure to comply with a lawful order from a judge."
But Department of Justice lawyers are standing firm, saying that the requests are necessary and appropriate, especially since a city ordinance adopted in 2017 requires that Denver law enforcement personnel not share any detailed information with ICE without a criminal warrant signed by a judge.
This battle between Denver and ICE is part of a larger campaign by the Trump administration to crack down on Denver and other municipalities that don't cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement; ICE refers to these places as "sanctuary cities."
On March 5, for example, President Donald Trump doubled down on the idea that the federal government will punish sanctuary cities by withholding certain federal grants. "They should change their status and go non-Sanctuary. Do not protect criminals!," Trump tweeted.
Since filing its Denver subpoena enforcement requests, ICE has taken similar actions against other municipalities in courts around the country, including New York. There the Trump administration's immigration enforcement team is battling the State of New York, which recently enacted a law that prevents Homeland Security agencies from accessing the state's Department of Motor Vehicles database for the purpose of immigration enforcement; that law also allows undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. In response to its implementation, the Department of Homeland Security banned New Yorkers from accessing Trusted Traveler Programs, such as Global Entry.
For years, Colorado has allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
As of now, there's nothing stopping ICE from asking the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles for data on people who it thinks could be deportable. But Senator Julie Gonzales plans on introducing a bill this session that would limit information-sharing between the DMV and ICE, as New York did; that could draw the ire of the Department of Homeland Security.
The conflict between the Trump administration's immigration enforcement agencies and so-called sanctuary cities isn't limited to just the courtroom and government offices. In recent weeks, the Trump administration announced that it would be sending what is essentially the SWAT team of Customs and Border Protection to municipalities across the nation that have defied orders.
ICE has also recently shifted personnel from its Homeland Security Investigations division, which often handles things like narcotics trafficking, financial crimes and human trafficking, to its Enforcement and Removal Operations unit, which handles deportations, in various "sanctuary cities," including Denver.
The personnel shift within ICE is being done to "address the increasing need driven by sanctuary policies to make more at-large arrests," according to Smock.