Trump Deems Denver a Sanctuary City. Now What?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued another threat this week.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued another threat this week. reinstein
Since the day that President Donald Trump took office, the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock has soft-stepped around labeling Denver a sanctuary city, using words like “welcoming” instead.

But as early as February 2017, the Trump administration was already sending signals that it did, in fact, consider Denver a sanctuary city. At the time, we asked, "Does Trump Consider Denver a Sanctuary City Based on ICE Reports?”

Eleven months later, the answer is clear: yes. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the prevailing question is how the feds will, if they will at all, punish sanctuary cities, and which side — Denver or Trump — has better legal grounds when it comes to Denver’s non-cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

This week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session issued yet another threat against jurisdictions that shield undocumented residents from deportation. On January 24, Sessions threatened to subpoena 23 jurisdictions to produce documents showing whether they are cooperating lawfully with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The City and County of Denver is among the 23 jurisdictions, as are other major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

On August 31, 2017, Denver codified a city ordinance that limits city employees’ communication with ICE, in part by not honoring ICE’s “detainer requests," or holding immigrants in local jails past their sentences. Hancock also issued an accompanying executive order that set up a legal defense fund for immigrants. Both moves drew scathing comments from the Department of Homeland Security.

This week’s warning of subpoenas is not the first threat to come from feds since the start of 2018; on January 16, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen revealed that the department had asked federal prosecutors whether they can file criminal charges against so-called sanctuary cities and their elected leaders.

In response to the latest threat, Hancock pronounced, “Denver won’t back down,” and announced that he was canceling a planned visit to the White House while at a mayors' gathering in Washington, D.C.

In a statement released by his office on Wednesday, January 24, Hancock elaborated:

“This is a destructive ploy by the Trump Administration’s lawyers to politicize a routine exchange of information. We will repeat what we have said time and again, Denver does not violate section 1373 and complies with all federal laws. These threats are blatant attempts to distract the American people from the real news, namely that the Mueller investigation is turning up the heat on a dysfunctional presidency. ... We are joined by dozens of other communities, resolute in opposing chaotic and poorly reasoned overreach by Attorney General Sessions, and we will not stand down from doing what is right. There are hundreds of Mayors in DC who have been invited by Trump to the White House today. I refuse to meet with the President under these kinds of threats and fearmongering. As a reminder to our community, every step we take and the role of our law enforcement is to maintain the highest level of safety for all our people, including our immigrants.”

In the game of political football over immigration enforcement — which is pervading all levels of government, Congress included — it will likely fall on federal judges to decide on the merits of the immigration policies in jurisdictions like Denver, which has insisted that it doesn’t have to help federal ICE agents unless those agents present signed warrants from judges (which the agency does not bother to get in many cases before staging arrests and raids).

Even Trump’s initial executive order threatening to pull federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions, which he signed during the first weeks of his presidency, is now under legal review after a federal judge in California filed a permanent injunction against the order in November.

Following Wednesday's comments by Sessions, prominent players in the immigration arena in Denver issued statements. Below are a handful:

From ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein:

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions is engaged in a malicious campaign of threats and intimidation to break the will of communities, like Denver, that have decided to limit their entanglement with Trump’s cruel, nativist deportation agenda. In this conflict, Denver is on the right side of common sense, public safety, the Constitution, and all of its residents — immigrant and citizen alike.”
From the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and American Friends Service Committee:

We are proud of the ordinance the Denver City Council passed last year. The ordinance makes Denver a better place to live and ensures that everyone can participate in the safety of our community.
Our communities and the Denver City Council put much work and research into passing this measure. We are confident and in agreement with the Denver City Attorney’s review of the legislation, which found that it is in compliance with Federal law.

Jeff Sessions’ threat to subpoena seems like an attempt to distract from a looming government shutdown based on the administration’s inability to work with Congress to pass a clean DREAM Act, something 80% of Americans agree with. The threat is a way for this administration to excite its base and try to instill fear in our communities.

If the Trump Administration wants to subpoena our city legislators, it would be a waste of taxpayer time and money. The Denver ordinance enforces the Constitution and requires that ICE get a judicial warrant, like the rest of our justice system, instead of seeking warrantless arrests. We are within the constitution and within the bounds of federal law in Denver and focused on keeping our local communities strong and safe. We hope the federal government will do the same. 
From Meyer Law Office policy director Julie Gonzales:

“It seems Attorney General Jeff Sessions finally found a minute of free airtime now that the President is off in Davos to get back to this administration's regularly-scheduled programming of blaming immigrants for all of America's problems. The letter sent out today by the Department of Justice demands that Denver provide documentation to verify that we, in fact, uphold the Constitution by declining to do ICE's job for them. This is fear-mongering and overreach, plain and simple, and states and local municipalities have the right and the obligation to reject Sessions's threats. If the Attorney General actually wants to make America great again, he should urge the President to reenter negotiations to pass a clean Dream Act." 

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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