A bill that would have permitted victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities to sue the elected officials of those cities failed in committee Wednesday, but not before provoking hours of passionate testimony.
Debate continued until midnight, but the bill, sponsored by Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Dave Williams, failed along party lines in the Democrat-majority State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
The bill, called “Hold Colorado Government Accountable Sanctuary Jurisdictions,” would have allowed victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in identified sanctuary jurisdictions to seek compensation of up to $700,000 from the elected officials of those jurisdictions. It would also have made it a crime, even for public officials, to provide “assistance to an illegal alien.”
The bill came under fire from legal experts, immigrant rights activists and community members. It also saw significant support from those who have been victimized by undocumented immigrants. Democratic lawmakers on the committee repeatedly questioned whether it would be constitutional.
“This presents an issue of exposing the sheriffs themselves to a Constitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said Chris Johnson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado. In a press conference in the capitol before the hearing, Colorado ACLU Policy Director Denise Maes said the bill disregarded the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure and attempted to stifle the right to due process.
Williams, a first-year lawmaker who is half-Latino and who identifies himself as Latino, campaigned against sanctuary cities, as well as in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, and other government benefits to undocumented immigrants. He said he wrote the bill after it “just kind of came to [him]” while he was considering sanctuary jurisdictions like Los Angeles, where he says undocumented criminals repeatedly seek safety from deportation. He acknowledged that this is one of the first such bills: “This is definitely treading on new ground.” He said the county sheriffs’ association expressed concerns to him about the bill, which he plans to address with an amendment.
During the testimony phase of the hearing, widow Christine Goodman and bereaved mothers Dawn Keller and Chris Lazarus each gave tearful accounts of the deaths they say would not have occurred if not for undocumented immigrants.
Goodman, whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run by an undocumented immigrant in 2004, said, “not all but too many of the millions of illegal immigrants…are not only destroying the preferred quality of life for American citizens, but killing, raping and harming us, as well.” She added, “They are not only taking our jobs, they are bankrupting our economic infrastructure.”
Keller blamed illegal immigrants for her son’s death by heroin overdose. “The drugs are coming in from Mexico, and they have the idea when it’s coming in that it’s going to cause damage, and kill our youth and kill our citizens,” she said. Lazarus, whose son also died of a heroin overdose, brought her son’s portrait and urn into the hearing room. “They’re killing our kids and they killed my kid,” she said. “This is a sanctuary city — where’s my sanctuary?”
Opponents said that the law would create distrust between immigrants and police, causing fear in communities. Immigrant rights advocate Gabriela Flora called the bill “backward looking” and ill-conceived at the pre-hearing press conference, saying it “would take us back in time, to Colorado’s dark days when…our ‘Show-me-your-papers law’ created fear in our communities and eroded trust between communities and local law enforcement.” Aubrey Hill, an advocate at the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, told The Colorado Independent that distrust of public officials could lead immigrants to not seek medical help when they most need it, or to not enroll in public programs for which they are eligible.
Christopher Lasch, a law professor at the University of Denver, expressed concern that the bill would lead to rights violations and would ultimately hold lawmakers liable for their voting records.
Ana Temu, whose undocumented aunt was a victim of domestic violence, said that the threat of deportation kept the desperate family silent. “No matter how much suffering she went through, we were not allowed to call the cops,” she said.
Photo by Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite