Claudia Valdez, a domestic violence survivor and undocumented single mother of three, helped bring about enormous changes to state immigration law.
Valdez, 40, was arrested in 2012 after a domestic dispute with her then-husband, even though he’d been the aggressor in that dispute and she’d been the one to call police to their Aurora home. Recognizing these facts, a judge ordered her release, but rather than let her go, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office held her in its jail for three extra days at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which did not have a warrant.
ICE picked her up from the jail and brought her to the agency’s Aurora detention center. She bonded out after about a week, and has been in deportation proceedings ever since.
Valdez, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1999, won a $30,000 settlement from Arapahoe County two years after her arrest, and her case spurred multiple major shifts in Colorado. Among those changes: the vast majority of sheriffs around the state agreed a few years ago to stop honoring warrantless ICE detainer requests, and then a ban on such coordination was codified in a law passed this year by the state’s new Democratic trifecta — House, Senate and governor — at the Capitol.
But none of this has helped Valdez. The single mom is a full-time housekeeper who works for $12.50 an hour, and she and her children — all of whom are citizens — describe their life as a cycle of hard days and recurring trauma. Seven years after her initial arrest, she may yet be deported. At a hearing Tuesday in downtown Denver immigration court, a judge declined to order her immediate deportation and postponed the decision indefinitely. Valdez will continue to live with uncertain immigration status for months or possibly years, until the judge does issue a ruling.
“I am in fear because this still isn’t over,” she said after the hearing. “In Mexico I’d have no way to watch after my three kids. So they’re waiting, too, wondering what will happen with their mother.”
Valdez’s attorney, Hans Meyer, lamented the irony: “She was the agent of change, but Claudia Valdez is still in deportation proceedings. And Claudia’s children are still suffering the consequences.”
“We might lose our mom”
Outside immigration court on Tuesday, Valdez’s eldest, 17-year-old Nicole, said she’s proud of her mom.
“I’m glad she opened up a case, that there was a law passed because people shouldn’t be scared to open up to law enforcement,” Nicole said.
That fear of law enforcement was the underlying sentiment of HB-1124. A previous, failed version of the bill had been dubbed Virginia’s Law, named for a woman who, like Valdez, wound up in ICE custody after calling police to report domestic violence. The bill originally was going to be called Claudia’s Law, Meyer said.
HB-1124’s authors and backers argued that police are less effective and communities are less safe if immigrants are scared of reporting a crime or of offering witness testimony.
“This deters people from trusting law enforcement,” Meyer said. “That’s just bad for business.”
Some sheriffs agreed. Joe Pelle, the Boulder County sheriff, added that ICE detainers put local officials in a legal bind, and advised lawmakers that detainers “are getting counties in trouble all across the country.”
Some sheriffs in Republicans counties disagreed. So, too, did ICE. After HB-1124 passed (without a single Republican vote in support) the agency said in a statement: “(T)he state has codified a dangerous policy that deliberately obstructs our country’s lawful immigration system, protects serious criminal alien offenders, and undermines public safety.”
The bill’s passage means Colorado law enforcement agencies are as of this year barred from honoring ICE detainers in the absence of a federal warrant — though sheriffs in Teller and El Paso counties have shown some resistance. County jails are also now required to advise undocumented people of their rights before releasing them.
Valdez has become a reluctant spokeswoman for the cause.
“This experience has been very hard for me, to be with three kids like this,” she said. “But I keep fighting to show others that they can keep moving forward.”
Her family says that’s hard to do.
“The whole process is draining. We don’t have an outcome, an answer,” Nicole said. “So it goes into our everyday life. We can’t concentrate in school. I go to work and I cry before I go on.”
Though the judge handed the family some relief on Tuesday, Nicole added, “It’s still nerve-wracking today, because we still don’t know if we might lose our mom.”
Middle child Yamil, 15, said he made his school’s honor roll one semester, then tanked during the next one.
“I was having negative thoughts constantly, every day. I don’t know what I’d be without my mother,” he said.
All three have been diagnosed with significant psychological damage, Nicole said.
State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, also works as a paralegal at Meyer’s firm. She’s been on Valdez’s case for seven years, and so she knows well the family’s struggle, both at the court level and psychologically.
She said that the legislature must do more to recognize the trauma that many children of immigrants face. Gonzales is a member of the state’s subcommittee on school safety, which was formed after the June shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.
“For a lot of the members, they’re really focused around the psychological impacts of mass shootings and gun violence. And I’m saying, ‘Yes, but there are other types of trauma that other students are navigating,’” Gonzales said.
“So we’re talking about the dearth of school counselors, school psychiatrists, who are able to help students and their families navigate trauma. But we’re seeing more and more immigrant families … in an educational system that doesn’t provide avenues for their support.”
This is but one angle from which lawmakers hope to bolster support and protections for undocumented Coloradans in 2020.
Lawmakers this year originally hoped to eliminate contractual agreements between Colorado law enforcement agencies and ICE, particularly in the form of 287(g) agreements, which effectively deputize local officers as ICE agents who can refer detainees to federal officers.
But Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who opposes statewide sanctuary policies in favor of local control, earlier this year signaled he’d veto a bill to ban those contracts, and drew several other lines that forced HB-1124’s authors to dramatically amend their bill. When it did eventually pass, advocates halfheartedly celebrated, knowing there was still nothing in Colorado law to prevent law enforcement officers from coordinating with ICE.
“We’ve been able to clarify the law to keep sheriffs from violating people’s rights. But here’s the problem: they’re still notifying ICE when people are released from custody,” Meyer said. “Claudia was arrested and then she was cleared of any responsibility. And at the point of release, she was reported to ICE. And that could happen today. Despite all the changes we’ve made, that will happen today.”