Editor’s note: The Indy is publishing a series of short stories reviewing the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. Here, we focus on immigration. We also wrote about opioids, climate change and criminal justice. Look for our story on voting/elections.
Many thousands of legal and unauthorized immigrants are living in fear in Colorado, in part the result of the White House’s aggressive stand on detainment and deportation.
With Democrats in power at the Capitol this session, lawmakers worked on several policies meant to provide some relief to the immigrant community. They were successful with several, but lost a key one: Gov. Jared Polis refused to support policies to limit the reach of federal immigration enforcement officers in Colorado.
Polis is expected to sign bills to provide basic, day-to-day relief for immigrants, but the notion of making systemic, statewide policy changes to thwart Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was a non-starter for him, and the legislature abandoned some sweeping reforms as a result.
Immigrant-related bills that passed
Deferred judgment: Imagine you’ve been charged with a low-level crime such as simple drug possession. A prosecutor offers you a deal: plead guilty and successfully complete your sentence — say, a couple years of probation or community service or maybe a rehabilitation course — and your case will be dismissed, with the record of the case sealed at the end of the probationary period.
This happens all the time in Colorado courts. It’s called deferred judgment. And there are plenty of immigrants who plead guilty to various low-level crimes because they’ve been advised that their records will be wiped clean once the sentence is satisfied. The problem this bill sought to resolve is that for immigrants — even those living here legally — those guilty pleas do not get wiped. And they can come back to haunt people and even potentially lead them to deportation.
Lawmakers Julie Gonzales and Kerry Tipper sponsored a bill to allow people to withdraw guilty pleas in cases where they made those pleas under the false assumption that their records would one day be wiped. In theory the bill, which passed the legislature and is pending the governor’s final signature, applies to all Coloradans. But it’s the immigrant community that will really benefit.
Driver’s licenses: Colorado first started issuing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants in 2014. The idea is that having a driver’s license removes a massive source of stress for an unauthorized person who might otherwise be driving around in constant fear he or she will get arrested for driving without a license, which could easily lead to a week in detainment or even to deportation.
The program has led to the issuance of more than about 60,000 licenses. The problem is that there have been so few offices that issue the licenses that immigrants have often had to drive far distances or face heavy administrative backlogs. The legislature passed a bill that will expand the program to 10 offices — up from three — by 2020. It was sponsored by Republican Don Coram and Democrats Jonathan Singer, Dominick Moreno and Rochelle Galindo, and it’s currently awaiting the governor’s signature.
364 days: For immigrants residing legally in the United States, a criminal conviction or guilty plea resulting in a possible jail sentence of at least one year can be enormously problematic. A sentence longer than one year can make an immigrant susceptible to mandatory deportation.
Lawmakers passed a bill to reduce the maximum sentence for certain low-level offenses from one year to 364 days. Shaving one day off these sentences could change everything for affected immigrants, argued Gonzales and fellow Democrat Leslie Herod, the bill’s sponsors. The legislature agreed and so did the governor, who signed the bill into law.
The troubled effort to thwart ICE
A pair of bills that failed were attempts to protect immigrants from ICE by drawing clear lines about locations and circumstances that would be off limits to federal immigration officers.
The first of these efforts, known as Virginia’s Law, flamed out in dramatic fashion. Feelings were hurt, bridges were burned, activists were disappointed.
But lawmakers brought another bill, HB-1124. The bill did pass, but as a shell of what it was only a few weeks ago. It bans state law enforcement officers from detaining people beyond their scheduled date of release at the request of ICE. It also bans probation officers from releasing personal identifying information to ICE about a detainee, unless ICE has a warrant. Finally, it requires law enforcement officers to provide an “advisement of rights” to immigrants ahead of interviews with ICE.
That has everything to do with pushback from Polis, who opposes “sanctuary state” policies and has on multiple occasions expressed support for ICE as a legitimate law enforcement agency. His clear line in the sand on that front — it wasn’t so clear at first, but we now know much more about his thinking — is a political reality that immigrant rights advocates and their champions at the legislature will have to reckon with in 2020 and beyond.