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The reasons that drew thousands of migrants to Denver over the last month are varied. But one thing is clear: Colorado and the city of Denver have passed laws in recent years aimed at making immigrants, regardless of legal status, feel welcomed.
About 4,000 migrants have arrived in Denver since Dec. 9. The city and its nonprofit partners opened up emergency shelters after being inundated with unexpected migrants streaming in from the southern border. The sudden influx has strained city resources so much that Mayor Michael Hancock described them as near a “breaking point, and Denver again extended its emergency declaration, this time until Feb. 27.
Immigration advocates, city and state officials, and experts speculate the laws that govern the city of Denver and state of Colorado may have attracted the migrants fleeing economic and political violence in Venezuela and other Central American countries. Colorado nonprofit groups’ relationships with border nonprofits also likely contributed to people coming to Denver.
Migrants have also said that Denver’s proximity to El Paso, Texas, via bus doesn’t hurt, especially as a temporary stop before continuing their journeys to other states. Officials have said the migrants have come on their own and were not sent by other states’ governors.
Colorado has become “radically more immigrant-friendly than it used to be,” Violeta Chapin, a clinical law professor and interim director of CU Boulder’s Immigration Law and Policy Program. The state’s current protections are a far cry from the 2006 “show me your papers” law that was repealed in 2013 or bills preventing immigrants without authorization from receiving state benefits or employment contracts with the state (repealed in 2021).
“I think immigrants know where to look to learn that, and they will make their way to states or cities that they perceive to be more friendly to immigrants,” Chapin said. “And so places like Colorado that declares itself ‘sanctuary,’ regardless of what that means, means generally to an immigrant who is coming that this is one of the places that’s at least safer for me than perhaps Texas or Florida.”
Immigrants also will often locate where they already have family and friends or where there’s already a large community of people who are from the same countries, speak their languages or worship the same God, Chapin added.
So what exactly is a sanctuary city, county or state?
Although there’s no legal definition for what a “sanctuary” jurisdiction is, the term was used to describe states and cities that passed pro-immigrant policies, particularly in limiting cooperation with federal law enforcement — local police won’t work to identify immigrants who may be in the country unlawfully nor will they detain people solely on the basis of a possible civil immigration violation.
The phrase has been weaponized as most things are in immigration, said Siena Mann of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. But symbolically, it’s an important term for advocates who have attempted to reclaim it as a way to describe places where all immigrants can feel welcome and safe.
For example, the city of Boulder declared itself a sanctuary city in 2017 and had already limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities before that. In 2021, the Aurora City Council rebuffed the label, despite existing policy preventing police from supporting civil immigration arrests.
When people hear that a city or state has the sanctuary label, they think they’re safe from immigration enforcement, Chapin said. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s no way of stopping (U.S. Immigrations and Enforcement) officials from coming into Boulder,” Chapin said. “What (the declaration) did is it sort of reaffirms this idea that the city of Boulder was not going to help immigration officials in any way, shape or form to identify any noncitizens living within the city of Boulder.”
The laws are partly meant to help immigrants feel at ease interacting with the criminal justice system and assisting local police, whether as victims of crime, witnesses or otherwise, and to feel safe living in their homes, working, going to school and contributing to their communities without constant fear of deportation. It still won’t provide immigrants, including those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, with a legal path to residency or citizenship — something activists had hoped would finally occur under the Biden administration, but has failed to materialize.
A spokesperson for the ICE field office in Denver said the federal agency can’t comment on state and local decisions on so-called sanctuary policies, a stark change from previous ICE statements under the Trump administration that frequently denounced laws preventing cooperation and lambasted “sanctuary” policies as detrimental to public safety.
Cities and states that have adopted these types policies are not in violation of federal law, courts have ruled, because local law enforcement is not charged with enforcing immigration law. The policies limit cooperation for civil enforcement but do not prevent complying with requests signed by a judge for criminal enforcement.
What are Denver’s “sanctuary” laws?
In 2017, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Denver isn’t a “sanctuary city,” but he also said if the title means the city is a place that supports immigrants, then he welcomes it. Spokesperson Mike Strott said leaders prefer the term “welcoming city” as a broader value statement to let all immigrants know they “are a part of our community, they contribute to our community and they should feel like they’re part of our community.”
On Nov. 21, 2016, the Denver City Council adopted a proclamation declaring the city “welcoming and inclusive of all people.” In August 2017, the mayor signed a City Council bill, the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act, that reiterated a 2014 decision that the city and county would not honor ICE holds except as required by law, continue the city of Denver’s policies of employees of not conducting the work of federal immigration enforcement and allow immigrants access to public health and human services programs. The mayor also issued an order to create a legal defense fund for indigent immigrants.
ICE has traditionally relied on local law enforcement to help its officers find and arrest suspects, and at the time, former ICE Denver field office director Jeffrey Lynch called Denver’s ordinance “a dangerous policy that deliberately obstructs our country’s lawful immigration system, protects serious criminal alien offenders and undermines public safety.”
But pro-immigration advocates and lawmakers have said the federal agency has deployed inhumane tactics, breaks up families and deports people who have lived in the U.S. for decades and who should not be a focus for removal from the country.
In 2018, then-Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson said the city’s policies comply with federal law, promote safety and create trust between immigrants and public safety officials. “We will continue to defend Denver’s right to set its own public safety priorities,” she said.
What about state laws?
Gov. Jared Polis also doesn’t consider Colorado to be a sanctuary state, and spokesman Conor Cahill said in a written statement that “the governor is not focused on buzzwords but on ensuring our law enforcement resources go toward fighting actual crimes to help make Coloradans safer.” Instead, the state has worked “to empower Colorado’s vibrant immigrant communities to help make our state stronger and more prosperous.”
Even Democratic lawmakers who sponsored laws to protect immigrants living in the country without documentation have said the measures they passed don’t make Colorado a sanctuary state ICE can still conduct its federal enforcement actions in the state.
But their Republican counterparts and GOP sheriffs — who have found themselves battling lawsuits on limiting cooperation with ICE — say otherwise.
Colorado state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, considers Denver a sanctuary city and Colorado a sanctuary state, and said the laws passed over the last 15 or so years have overburdened state and local systems, including law enforcement and human services. That’s playing out clearly to him now as thousands of migrants made their way to Denver, with the city and state spending millions of dollars on response.
“I would far more prefer … to be supporting resolutions imploring the current administration — and the Congress for that matter — to undertake realistic, serious immigration reform,” including border security and a “reasonable” number of legal immigrants, Gardner said. “I think it’s far more valuable for us to use our political capital encouraging the federal government to do what it’s required to do that it is for us to … virtue signal that we’re open to anyone who wants to come here illegally and we’ll find a place for you.”
In 2019, Colorado lawmakers passed HB19-1124, preventing local police from keeping people in jails beyond their release date solely on the basis of an ICE request. It became the first state to do so, Chapin said.
In 2020, lawmakers passed a bill that would keep ICE out of Colorado courthouses to conduct civil immigration arrests, so immigrants without authorization could still show up to testify as victims, witnesses and even address traffic citations without the fear of being deported.
Lawmakers also passed laws over the years that would allow anyone, regardless of their legal presence in the U.S. to receive certain state benefits, including in 2013, in-state tuition for college and in 2019, access to financial aid; also in 2019, allowing them to obtain driver’s licenses and state ID cards; and in 2021, to get housing assistance, access to contraceptives and occupational licenses to help with worker shortages. Legislators also expanded the state’s criminal extortion law, to include a prohibition on threatening to report someone to immigration officials to take advantage of them. And they established a statewide immigrant legal defense fund.
Gardner said he hopes the legislature puts an end to the “trend that seems to be taking on burdens for our Colorado citizens and local communities that they simply can’t finance or handle.”
But for immigration activists like Mann, the work is far from over to protect their fellow Coloradans.
Mann said her organization plans to continue working on refining legislation and closing loopholes such as ICE’s use of data companies to circumvent sanctuary laws. In 2021, Colorado passed a law to prevent state agencies from sharing information from their own databases with ICE.
These types of laws treat immigrants as part of the community, as residents, and recognize their contributions and that they are integral to where they live, said former Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat and sponsor of pro-immigrant legislation.
“We aren’t the most generous state in the country” when it comes to immigrant protections, she said. “And I don’t think what we’re doing are bad things. They’re things that benefit not only the immigrant, but beyond that. When people are allowed to get vaccines (for example), that’s a public benefit. That helps all of us. When people receive a good education, that helps all of us.”
Sanctuary label challenges
So-called sanctuary cities and states don’t receive any more money or less because of the unofficial label, and the federal government can’t mandate a state or city to perform a federal function.
But during former President Donald Trump’s term, the administration threatened to withhold law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities, including the city of Denver and state of Colorado. The city joined a federal lawsuit for the grant money and a court ruled in its favor in 2018 and the state sued in 2019. The Biden administration later repealed the restrictions.
In 2020, ICE subpoenaed Denver law enforcement agencies — the first time it has ever subpoenaed local law enforcement — looking for information on four foreign nationals.
Because the subpoenas were not court-ordered or appeared to be part of a criminal investigation, the city declined to respond. ICE took it to a federal judge who required Denver to turn over the information in just these cases, but the judge also narrowed the amount of information Denver had to release.
Despite these challenges and the lack of movement from Congress, Colorado’s leaders say they are working to ensure every person who chooses to live in Colorado can remain. But they also recognize the limitations of states and cities.
“And as long as our federal government is so dysfunctional in addressing comprehensive immigration reform, we all know, and I think even those in conservative states recognize, that we do need immigrants,” Benavidez said. “We couldn’t function without them.”
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