What would have been Colorado’s most significant immigrant rights bill in years flamed out in dramatic fashion earlier this month, causing a rift in the advocacy community and sparking tension between activists and the Democratic governor.
Now there’s another bill moving through the Capitol that seeks to accomplish much of what was in the shelved bill, which was commonly known as Virginia’s Law. Supporters say they are cautiously optimistic that this effort will go more smoothly and lead to further protections for immigrants — here with or without legal authorization — from federal enforcement.
This new bill, HB-1124, seeks to clarify what local law enforcement officials in Colorado can and can’t do when it comes to communication and coordination with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It would effectively ban local officials from using public funds or resources to help enforce federal civil immigration laws.
The bill, authored by Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City, states that a local law enforcement officer cannot arrest or detain a person based on a civil detainer request by ICE, nor provide any confidential identifying information about that person. Such cooperation does happen in Colorado: Teller County, for example, authorized sheriff’s deputies to detain people beyond their release dates if ICE so requested. The bill would require immigration officials first produce a warrant or a written order from a federal judge.
HB-1124 also states that local officials can’t alert ICE when an unauthorized immigrant is coming in for a probation meeting. That situation — someone thinks they’re about to have a basic interaction with the criminal justice system and instead winds up on a path to deportation — also happens, advocates say, though evidence of it is mostly anecdotal.
Benavidez’s bill also calls for limits on ICE’s access to nonpublic areas of jails and other government facilities. ICE cannot, the bill says, use those nonpublic areas for the purpose of “conducting investigative interviews or for any other purpose related to the enforcement of civil immigration laws” — unless its officers bring a warrant or written order.
Another provision, a carryover from Virginia’s Law, calls 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.
All of these protections, advocates say, are needed to calm an immigrant community fearful of detention or deportation as a result of interacting with public safety institutions. Such fears, advocates, attorneys and some in the criminal justice system report, have meant immigrants are refusing to report crimes, act as witnesses or appear for a scheduled court date or probation hearing. One man testified at Thursday’s hearing that he was hit by a car and injured, but when people on the scene said they would call police, he pleaded with them not to because members of his family are undocumented.
“All of us are safer when people are willing to call police, to come forward as witnesses,” Benavidez said.
The Democrat-controlled House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee evidently agrees with her; on Thursday it voted 6-3, on party lines, to advance the legislation to the House floor.
Among the Republicans who voted against the bill was Dave Williams of Colorado Springs.
“If we’re limiting federal immigration authorities, if we’re limiting this access,” Williams said, “isn’t there the potential unintended consequence that someone that was in custody that’s been released, could (be a) danger to the public?”
This year’s legislative session wraps in early May, and many bills are still waiting to be heard and debated. In response to a Democratic agenda that includes legislation that would limit gun rights in certain circumstances, tightens regulations on oil and gas operations, seeks further climate protection and would repeal the death penalty, Republican lawmakers have employed various tactics to slow the process further. It’s possible HB-1124 will “die on the vine,” Benavidez said.
But even if it moves through the House and Senate, it’s not clear whether Gov. Jared Polis will sign it.
Polis, who’s wrapping his third month as governor, is a longtime advocate for immigrants. He founded schools that serve undocumented children and was a fierce ally of DREAMers during his tenure in Congress.
But during his campaign and brief tenure in office, many in Colorado’s immigrant rights advocacy community have been questioning his commitment. That doubt — along with no small amount of frustration and anger — stems in large part from Polis’s campaign stance against a “sanctuary state.” He has said that the question of sanctuary policy should be left to local governments and that such policies risk promising more than they can deliver because enforcement of immigration law lies with the federal government.
Those familiar with the negotiations on Virginia’s Law say that Polis was worried that certain aspects of the bill represented sanctuary policies. There is no formal definition of “sanctuary” — different jurisdictions have different definitions — and Polis has never stated publicly what the term means to him. His office has disregarded questions from The Colorado Independent seeking his definition of sanctuary. Benavidez, who said she’s met four times with the governor about the bill, said this week, “I don’t know what he means by it.”
While the Polis obstacle slowed the rollout of Virginia’s Law, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, which was working on the drafting with Rep. Susan Lontine (D-Denver), became frustrated and impatient, and “went rogue,” as Lontine put it, by suggesting on Facebook and then in an email blast that House Speaker KC Becker was the cause of the delay.
“What I never understood was why they continued to attack her when I kept telling them she was not the problem. The governor was the problem,” Lontine said.
The Immigrant Rights Coalition was conspicuously absent from testimony on Thursday.
After Virginia’s Law fell apart, its lead sponsor, Lontine said she’d work to preserve some parts of the law with a new bill this session. Instead Lontine signed on as a co-prime sponsor of HB-1124.
Asked whether Polis supports HB-1124, and why, Laurie Cipriano, a spokeswoman for the governor, said only that Polis “has provided feedback” to Benavidez “and will monitor the bill closely as it moves through the process.”
Lontine is optimistic the governor will support the bill. “We’ve hammered out a deal” with Polis, she said Wednesday.
“I think we’ve arrived at a place where maybe he’s not going to agree with everything 100%. But it’s got a better chance … We took out a couple things (Polis) just didn’t like.”
Gone now is a provision prohibiting Colorado sheriffs from automatically notifying ICE when an unauthorized immigrant is being released from custody. Immigrant rights advocates admitted HB-1124 has significantly less potential impact as a result.
Toward the end of Thursday’s committee hearing, Lontine said, “There’s a lot more that we would have liked to have done, but this is what we believe we can do.”