City Council and Mayor Come Together in New Immigration Legislation

Mayor Hancock at Wednesday's press conference.
Mayor Hancock at Wednesday's press conference. Chris Walker
In response to increased immigration enforcement under President Trump and lower numbers of crimes being reported by immigrants, Denver has looked for ways to reassure residents that it is doing no more than what is legally necessary when following federal immigration laws. But the city hasn't always agreed on how to communicate that message.

In the past two weeks, disagreements have arisen between the mayor's office, Denver City Council members and immigrant-rights advocates over just how much Denver should limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

One sticking point has been the degree to which city and county employees should be limited in their communication with ICE. A city council proposal sponsored by Paul Lopez and Robin Kniech looked to end the Denver Sheriff Department's practice of voluntarily giving ICE the release dates of undocumented inmates in city jails unless those inmates fit into certain categories, such as violent offenders.

Then the mayor's office released its own proposal, on August 1: a draft executive order, which proposed creating a legal defense fund for immigrants but did not limit any city and county employees, including those with the sheriff's department, from communicating with ICE.

The discrepancy led to some critical statements by immigrant-rights advocates like attorney Hans Meyer and policy director Julie Gonzales of the Meyer Law Office (both were part of a coalition that unveiled a sanctuary-city proposal in late April). They and other immigrant-rights advocates have requested an ordinance that prohibits city and county employees in departments like courts, jails and probation offices from helping ICE agents detain people.

As the disagreements came to the fore, however, the three groups — councilmembers, the mayor and his staff, and community organizers — assembled late last week in a closed-door meeting to come up with a joint proposal.

That proposal was announced Wednesday, August 16, at the Denver City and County Building.

Using the same name as Kniech and Lopez's original bill, the “Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act,” the new legislation is a compromise among the different groups that want to limit Denver's cooperation with ICE.

One significant change from the mayor's draft executive order is that city and county employees — including with probation offices, pre-trial services and the Department of Corrections — will be prohibited from communicating with ICE unless presented with a warrant. Employees who fail to follow this mandate would be subject to discipline, including possible termination.

The bill doesn't change the sheriff department's current policies about giving release dates of inmates to ICE, instead leaving that decision up to the sheriff. But the sheriff's department would be tasked with advising inmates of their rights and collecting data about the types of inmates for which ICE is requesting release dates — like whether those inmates include non-violent, first-time offenders.

At Wednesday's press conference, Kniech said that crafting this bill has been a “journey.” Mayor Hancock confirmed as much by saying how, while different groups have not always seen eye to eye, he was pleased that everyone could still come together and have a conversation.

“We're sending a message to Washington,” Hancock said. “If you won't do the right thing, then we certainly will.”

To immigrant community members, he said, “We've got your backs.”

Similar to previous proposals, the legislation would codify existing practices in Denver such as not honoring ICE detainer requests and not requiring city and county employees to collect information about the citizenship status of residents unless legally necessary.

Hancock also said the proposal would be accompanied by an executive order that would establish a legal-defense fund, create “know-your-rights” trainings for residents, facilitate trainings for city and county employees to follow the new ordinance, and assist children in families separated by immigration enforcement.

One of Denver's most outspoken advocates for immigrant rights, Gonzales of the Meyer Law Office, hailed the proposal as a victory. She helped shape legislation at last week's closed-door meeting, and said it was evidence of how “we work better when we're all on the same team.”

City Attorney Kristin Bronson as well as councilmembers Kniech, Lopez, Clark, Gilmore, Brooks, New and Kashmann were all in attendance to support the announcement. The legislation will have its first reading before city council on Monday, August 21, followed by a public-comment period and full vote on the following Monday, August 28.
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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