Gov. Jared Polis, who ardently supported immigrants’ rights as both a philanthropist and Congress member, may be the biggest obstacle to immigration reform measures this session.
Immigrant rights groups and Democratic lawmakers — who now control both chambers of the legislature — are hoping to pass two bills aimed at limiting the extent to which government agencies and law enforcers in Colorado can cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
One of those bills, introduced in the House in January by Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, would ban state and local officials from using public funds or resources to help enforce federal civil immigration laws. Such cooperation has been playing out in Colorado. Teller County, for example, authorized sheriff’s deputies to detain people whose immigration status is in question. The ACLU sued Teller over that practice, and the two sides settled last week.
The other measure — expected soon to be introduced in the House by Rep. Susan Lontine — would enable undocumented Coloradans to contact fire and law enforcement officials without fear that doing so will get them detained or deported. That bill, which is similar but not a carbon copy of a measure postponed last year, is known as Virginia’s Law, named after a woman named Virginia Mancinas who years ago called 9-1-1 in western Colorado to report that her husband was assaulting her, only to then be interviewed and detained by ICE.
More than 100 people rallied at the Capitol Wednesday in support of passing a version of Virginia’s Law in Colorado. Sen. Julie Gonzales, a longtime immigrants’ rights paralegal and organizer from Denver who will be sponsoring the bill in the Senate, assured the crowd that the bill is on its way, even though it has been delayed a few weeks beyond its initial expected filing date.
“Know that there are multiple avenues of attack in order to try to find solutions to protect and defend the rights of the immigrant community,” she said. “Know that that is happening.”
In an interview after the rally, Gonzales didn’t specify what, exactly, is holding up the bill. But, undoubtedly, Polis is a key factor behind the delay.
He founded New America Schools for immigrant and undocumented children — there are now three campuses in Colorado and two in New Mexico — and had a reputation in Congress as an outspoken supporter of DACA recipients. He once screamed that support on the House floor.
But as a newly elected Democratic governor running a state with both chambers under Democratic rule, he’s been treading lightly on progressive issues.
The perceived Boulder liberal campaigned as a moderate. He said many times as a candidate last year that he would not support legislation to turn Colorado into a “sanctuary state,” even as his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton, warned of that prospect repeatedly. Rather, Polis said at the time that he supports local control on “sanctuary” policies — meaning that when cities proclaim themselves places of “sanctuary” for the undocumented, as Boulder and others have done, he wouldn’t get in the way. But a sweeping, statewide policy, he’d add, would be a no-go for him.
His office did not respond to a request for an interview with Polis on Wednesday, but there’s no indication that his position has changed since the election.
Complicating the policy discussion is the fact that, in the immigration context, there is no formal definition of the term “sanctuary.” Very generally speaking, the word is used to indicate that officials in a particular jurisdiction aren’t going to go out of their way to tip off ICE, coordinate with the agency, or help round up undocumented immigrants. Different cities have adopted the label, but put in place vastly different policies.
The term has become politically charged under the administration of President Trump, who on many occasions has threatened to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary” cities he has derided – with much success among his Republican base – as giving free rein to undocumented immigrants, whom he often portrays as dangerous criminals intent on gaming the system.
That’s why those pushing these immigration bills in Colorado have resisted using the term.
When asked earlier this month whether she’d use the “sanctuary” label for her bill, Benavidez said, “I wouldn’t call it that, because I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s perfectly fine for other people to call it that, but I’m not going to. I never call something — like, ‘That’s a monstrosity,'” she said, pointing to a nearby chair. “Like, ‘No, it’s a chair.’ But I can call it a monstrosity if I want to. People can call the bill whatever they want. I’m not going to call it that.”
The emphasis, supporters of that bill and Virginia’s Law say, should be less on semantics than on trying to foster a safer environment for some of Colorado’s most vulnerable people and for their neighbors. Immigrants’ fear of risking deportation by reporting a crime, they say, makes their communities less welcoming, and certainly less safe.
Veronica Rosas, a 13-year resident of Colorado with five kids, spoke at Wednesday’s rally about her “fear to report” anything to police.
“I’m a domestic violence survivor,” she said in Spanish. “My husband and myself had some problems but there were many different incidents that I let pass before I reported it to the police. I wanted to stop the abuse, but I didn’t want him to be separated from his children or to be reported to (ICE).”
Rosas isn’t alone in this perspective. Unauthorized immigrants living in Colorado are almost universally afraid of calling police, even when they, their children, or other people are in danger. And it’s not just cops they’re scared of. Attorneys and advocates say immigrants have been reported to ICE by county parole officers, Department of Motor Vehicle workers and even school staffers.
As Benavidez tells it, a person’s life shouldn’t be upended because of a necessary — and potentially lifesaving — interaction with a public official.
“There should be a real basis” for someone being reported to ICE, she said. “If that’s a request signed off by a judge, OK — but otherwise, we shouldn’t be expending any of our resources.”
Many Democratic state lawmakers clearly agree with that position. More than a dozen of them attended Wednesday’s rally.
But their support, as well as backing from groups like ACLU and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, hasn’t seemed so far to sway Polis, whom Gonzales knows has made it “exceptionally clear” that “he’s not going to sign a ‘sanctuary bill’.”
Gonzales doesn’t want to push a bill that’ll get vetoed, and she realizes that the term “sanctuary” is a hot-button for a governor trying to prove his moderate credentials. So what does it mean for her and others trying to convince him to back reform measures?
“We’re having lots of conversations about exactly that question,” Gonzales said. She and other supporters of the bill believe Virginia’s Law is less about providing “sanctuary” than clarifying that police shouldn’t be deputized by ICE, and that people should be able to call emergency responders if they’re in danger.
There’s a needle to thread here, Gonzales explained.
“I’m going to be super thoughtful about this,” she said. “I know that if we don’t get it right when we introduce the bill, that’s only going to make this more complicated.”