‘From rage to heartbreak’: How a landmark immigration bill fell apart at the Colorado statehouse

Lawmakers say immigrant rights group was too aggressive in pushing for a measure the governor would never sign

Supporters of Virginia's Law rallied Feb. 27 at the Capitol. (Photo by Evan Semón)
Supporters of Virginia's Law rallied Feb. 27 at the Capitol. (Photo by Evan Semón)

A landmark immigrant rights bill that sought to limit federal immigration enforcement in Colorado imploded before it was ever introduced, leaving advocates, lobbyists and lawmakers feeling a mix of deflation, frustration and anger.

Division over tactics, timing, and scope of the bill eventually crippled negotiations.

“There are a lot of hurt feelings,” said Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, who had planned to sponsor the bill. “I think everybody sort of reached this moment last week of, ‘You know, I think we’re done here.’”

“I can’t find the right word for it,” said the ACLU’s Denise Maes. “It’s beyond frustrating.”

It’s unclear what the ramifications of the bill’s shelving are for Colorado’s undocumented community since final language was never released. But, at the very least, it appears that undocumented immigrants in many parts of Colorado can’t call 9-1-1 with any guarantee they won’t end up in the hands of immigration officers.

For months, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) and the ACLU worked with Gonzales and Rep. Susan Lontine, the planned House sponsor, on a revised version of a measure introduced — and postponed — last year, known as Virginia’s Law. The legislation is named for a woman who years ago called police in western Colorado to report that her husband was assaulting her, only to then be interviewed and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Last year’s version sought to prohibit county law enforcement from detaining people for ICE or tipping off the agency ahead of an undocumented person’s release from jail, unless ICE had a judicial warrant. It also called for the state to publish “model policies” to require public institutions to allow equal access to everyone regardless of immigration status.

No reboot of Virginia’s Law was ever published this year, but those involved in its drafting say its general aim was much the same: allow undocumented Coloradans to enter public spaces and to contact fire and law enforcement officials when they are in danger or witness a crime, without fear that doing so will get them detained or deported.

Some states and local governments have sought to protect undocumented immigrants through so-called “sanctuary” policies meant to limit cooperation between public officials and ICE. Virginia’s Law 2.0 sought a version of that, creating bright lines between state and federal responsibilities when it comes to enforcing immigration law. It also sought, among other things, the creation of “safe spaces” such as hospitals and churches, for undocumented immigrants.

Advocates felt strongly that the timing was right. Democrats control both chambers of the Colorado legislature and the state just elected as governor Jared Polis, a Democrat who founded schools for undocumented and immigrant children and was a strong supporter in Congress of immigrants and especially of DACA recipients. Virginia’s Law was nearly a decade in the hatching, advocates say, and for its backers there was urgency to its passage due to the Trump administration’s aggressive expansion of deportation and detention policies.

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Bridges burned

For weeks, the various parties involved in the drafting of the bill struggled over its provisions, particularly one that would create safe spaces, language that risked jeopardizing the governor’s support. For all his pro-immigrant bona fides, Polis said multiple times on the campaign trail that he would not sign any bill that promoted statewide sanctuary policies. Such decisions, he said, should be up to local governments.

Even as the bill’s introduction was pushed back week after week, confidence among supporters was high — so high that CIRC turned out about 100 people on Feb. 27 to rally for the bill they believed was on its way.

But patience was also running out, and last week CIRC organized an event at the Capitol aimed at putting pressure on House Speaker KC Becker to move things along. The move, a surprise to others involved in the bill, drew immediate backlash.

Gonzales, who once worked for CIRC, said the organization “really crossed a line.”

Her voice low and her tone firm, she added, “Bridges have been burned.”

A screenshot of the Facebook page for an event the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition organized, then canceled in the face of heavy backlash.

Becker was not closely involved in the negotiations and was not the cause of the hold up, according to a half-dozen people with knowledge of the bill’s drafting process.

Becker said she appreciated CIRC’s commitment to the issue, “But I think they had a misunderstanding of what really was transpiring.”

Amid the furor, the event, which was to take place on Monday, was canceled.

CIRC’s executive director, Nicole Melaku, said Becker was “pretty angry” when they spoke. She said that she wants to “repair the relationship,” but explained that her organization went rogue in part because it’s the job of advocates to agitate.

“Crossing the line is what we do,” Melaku said. “We push for the best policy outcomes. Sometimes we push too far. But when lives depend on it, the people we represent rely on us to push.”

Melaku said she’s heard a lot of frustration over the fact that the bill couldn’t even get introduced in a state where Democrats control the Capitol and all executive offices.

“I think the temperature right now (ranges) from rage to heartbreak,” she said. “People feel like it’s a betrayal by a party that talks about a ‘Colorado for all.’”

“Colorado for all,” was Polis’s inauguration slogan.

Melaku added, “We see that it’s a Colorado for all but those with the least power. And this is not what we expected of our quote-unquote champions in the legislature.”

Polis draws a line

Some advocates pushing for immigrant rights and protections at the legislature say they are dismayed that a governor with such a reputation and record as an ally of the immigrant community remains a roadblock for the wider protections Virginia’s Law sought.

Some speculate that Polis may have backed himself into a corner by promising during the campaign that he wouldn’t support a sanctuary state, because what is considered sanctuary is often in the eye of the beholder. The term has no formal definition, but it generally indicates a jurisdiction has restricted coordination between its officials and ICE.

“One of the things I told his policy advisors,” the ACLU’s Maes said, “is you can do the tiniest, tiniest thing for the immigrant community and it will be labeled sanctuary. So you might as well go bold and do something big.”

She called the governor’s aversion to Virginia’s Law “very puzzling and it’s very frustrating and I don’t have a good answer for it.”

The governor’s office explained its stance in a prepared statement in response to questions from The Indy: “The governor is committed to ensuring communities are safe and individuals can report crimes to law enforcement, but as he stated during the campaign, he opposes sanctuary policies because they are not enforceable and provide a false sense of security.”

Becker echoed this concern, saying that it’s tough to stop ICE from entering places like schools and hospitals — no matter how much a state or local government wishes it so.

“It’s very challenging to pass state laws to regulate a federal agency,” she said. “What we really need is a change in presidency.”

Polis’s staff pointed to several examples of bills the immigrant rights community and he both support, including a bill that will create more offices where unauthorized immigrants can obtain drivers licenses. They also noted Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser are suing the federal government for withholding $2.7 million in funding to Colorado because of the state’s perceived lack of strong immigration enforcement.

“The governor supports policies that will make life better for immigrant communities and will defend against federal government overreach,” the statement said.

The focus has now turned to salvaging provisions of the bill to preserve some of what advocates and lawmakers had hoped to accomplish before the legislative session ends in May.

For one, it appears there’s wide support — and potential for passage — for a policy requiring local law enforcement agents to advise immigrants in their custody of their rights before an interview with a federal immigration officer before the legislative session ends in May.

The governor’s office, Gonzales, Lontine and advocates remain in touch on what that legislation might look like, and if it’s indeed possible this session. Where the governor will draw his lines remains unclear. Rep. Adrienne Benavidez is carrying a bill to ban state and local officials from using public funds or resources to help enforce federal civil immigration laws. Polis’s office says his staff is reviewing that bill.

Tina Griego contributed to this report.

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  1. “I can’t find the right word for it,” said the ACLU’s Denise Maes. “It’s beyond frustrating.”

    I can. It is apparent that at least one group involved in this process lacked “pragmatism”.

    Pragmatism. Good word.

    Used in a sentence, Bernie lost the primary because of a lack of pragmatism.

  2. I called 911 twice imy life and both times I proved my identity. This is a perfect time to round up illegal aliens. They are spending tax dollars once the dispatcher picks up the call. Undocumented simply means that one does not have their ID with them. Just sayin

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