Tancredo’s sanctuary city claims simply don’t stand up to closer scrutiny

Is Denver a sanctuary city? American Constitution Party candidate for governor Tom Tancredo says it is. Democratic nominee and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper says it is not.

When asked for the basis of his claims, Tancredo spokesman Leo Jankowski said Denver Executive Order 116 (pdf), signed by Mayor Wellington Webb in 1998, makes Denver a sanctuary city.

That order, which is still on the books, does not even mention illegal immigrants, but rather says Denver should treat all legal immigrants equally.

Asked if this order was “still in force,” assistant city attorney David Broadwell said, “It is still on the books.”

He characterized the order as “having no force and effect.” He said most executive orders are very specific and spell out exactly what is expected of a particular department. “This one is something of an outlier. It expresses the sentiment of city officials but it does not cause anything to happen.”

When Webb signed the order, though, city officials told the Denver Post that the order could cost the city up to $1 million a year in additional services to legal immigrants. This was on top of an existing social services budget of $550 million in 1998.

Broadwell says the order today is not used as a guide for any sort of city policy or procedure and costs the city nothing.

Another city policy that critics point to as proof that Denver is a sanctuary city is known as 100-90 (3) in the city’s Police Department Operations Manual.

It says, “Denver Police officers shall not initiate police actions with the primary objective of discovering the immigration status of an individual.”

It goes on to say that when a person arrested for any reason is believed to be an undocumented immigrant, that person shall be referred to immigration authorities.

Broadwell says that part of the Police Manual has been unchanged “since the 1990s.”

In 2006, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 90 (pdf), which creates a policy that no city or county in Colorado shall operate as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, and that if they do provide sanctuary, they shall not be eligible for financial assistance from the Department of Local Affairs.

Broadwell said Denver has never been found to be in violation of SB 06-90. The law says cities and counties must cooperate with immigration officials and must not have any policies that prohibit law enforcement employees from cooperating with immigration.

Much of the language in the law could have come directly from Denver’s Police Manual — that if an arrest is made of someone whom officers have a reason to believe is an illegal immigrant, that person shall be referred to immigration authorities. It mandates that each law enforcement agency provide the state an annual accounting of how many people were referred to immigration.

Tancredo, on his campaign website, has posted a Contract with Colorado. No. 7 on the list is:

“I will issue an executive order directing the Department of Local Affairs to thoroughly audit compliance with SB 06-90, and will order DOLA to deny state grants to any “sanctuary city” or any “sanctuary county.”

The state has already conducted such an audit (pdf), which uncovers no cases of a city or county being in violation. This audit was done last year by the Office of the State Auditor and managed by a committee of eight members of the Legislature, four from each of the two major parties.

The 2009 audit was spurred by an automobile accident that happened in Aurora in September of 2008, wherein Francis Hernandez broadsided another vehicle, which was pushed into a restaurant. Three people were killed.

Hernandez was later found to be an illegal immigrant who had been arrested numerous times in the metro area but never referred to immigration. The accidents and numerous of his other brushes with the law were in Aurora.

His ability to remain out of custody and in the country was seen by some as a failure of the system. Senate Bill 90 had been in effect about two years at the time of this accident. The audit concluded that there is little that could have been done by law enforcement to prevent such an accident.

“We concluded that the implementation of Senate Bill 06-090 alone is unlikely to either prevent fatal traffic accidents allegedly caused by illegal immigrants or increase the number of detained or removed illegal immigrants.”

“Even if he (Hernandez) had been referred to ICE by any of the parties who had arrested him prior to the accident, he probably would have been released because his offenses were pretty minor and he presented as a citizen in that he spoke perfect English, had lived in the country most of his life and was consistent in telling authorities he was born in California,” Broadwell said.

Indeed, of those people referred to ICE by Colorado authorities, ICE generally takes custody of only 20-30 percent of them, opting to allow most go once released from local custody.

One thing SB 90 has done is force cities and counties in Colorado to refer people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement whenever they have reason to believe someone they have arrested is undocumented.

According to the audit, cities and counties are cooperating. According to information provided to us by the Hickenlooper campaign and corroborated in part by the audit (which doesn’t cover every year), the numbers are substantial.

Since SB 90 was passed, Denver has referred more than 7,000 people to ICE. Once referred, ICE examines the record and if it determines the person is in the country without documentation, they are deported.

Tancredo refers to Denver as a sanctuary city at almost every opportunity. His website is replete with such charges, including “For seven years Hickenlooper has run a sanctuary city, which has encouraged hundreds of thousands of illegals to its city limits.”

In a press release sent in July, Hickenlooper spokesman George Merritt said, “Simply repeating a false claim doesn’t make it true.” The release goes on, “Denver is not — and never has been — a sanctuary city. The City and County of Denver complies with all relevant federal and state immigration laws. The City has never adopted a ‘non-cooperation’ policy regarding the enforcement of… immigration laws.”

Broadwell said more or less the same thing, adding “When you think of a sanctuary city, you think of a place where when you cross the border into the city you will be treated differently than if you hadn’t crossed the border. That is not the case here. You can cross Sheridan [boulevard] in either direction and be treated identically by Lakewood or Denver. All the cities in the area comply with the law and cooperate with ICE.”

If you search the Internet for lists of sanctuary cities and/or definitions of the term, you’ll find many sites, most of them maintained by anti-immigration organizations. One of the most comprehensive sites is www.ojjpac.org.

They define sanctuary cities as those having policies spelling out that the city should not report illegal residents to ICE. The site lists nearly 200 cities, as well as the states of Oregon and Maine. Denver is on the list, but so are Phoenix, Tucson, Dallas, Houston and Salt Lake City.

“Denver has never been a sanctuary city,” Broadwell said. “Some cities adopt policies of non-cooperation. Denver has never done that. Our policies are no different than any other city in the area. We are accused, but where is the evidence? How do these documents (the Police Manual and the executive order) make us a sanctuary city? Are they saying that anyone with brown skin should be subject to interrogation as to their status?” he asked.

Phoenix Police Lt. Tommy Thompson said Phoenix, refers 5,000 to 7,000 people a year to ICE, but that he has no idea how many are detained. Phoenix is about 2.5 times the size of Denver. When told that Phoenix was considered by some to be a sanctuary city, he laughed.

“No, we’re not a sanctuary city,” he said. Asked what it would mean to be a sanctuary city, he laughed again. “You’d have to ask them [those using the term],” he said. Then he became more serious. “It’s a political term. It has nothing to do with what happens on the street in a city. The term is used by people who think that no matter what you are doing, it isn’t enough.”

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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