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A group from Mi Familia Vota gathers after the official launch of the Colorado Rapid Response Network in June. Courtesy of Mi Familia Vota

Behind Denver’s New Immigration Ordinance Is An Engaged Group of Citizens

The Denver City Council passed a sweeping immigration ordinance on August 28 that was a result of a compromise with Mayor Michael Hancock. Behind the scenes, advocates have been working to drum up citizen support for the order, which may prove to be a model for other U.S. cities.

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On a cool evening in early August, volunteers for the Immigration Resistance Network, a loose coalition of seven Colorado immigrants’ rights groups, trickled into a nondescript office building on West Alameda Avenue. Inside, organizers employed by several of the network’s member organizations hurried about, plugging in tablets, running extension cords, assigning volunteers to phone stations, and working through the kinks of their phone banking software. Two dogs wandered around, alternately wrestling with each other and stopping to beg for ear scratches and potato chips.

For the last seven months, the network—composed of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, Mi Familia Vota, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), the Colorado People’s Alliance (COPA), Together Colorado, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and Meyer Law Office—has been doggedly lobbying the Denver City Council to do more to protect the city’s immigrant and refugee populations. Last month, these efforts manifested in a municipal ordinance—the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act—introduced by Denver City Council members Robin Kniech and Paul López. The ordinance was approved by a City Council vote of 10–0 on August 28 after passing through committee on August 2.

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The details of the ordinance itself are a mouthful. It codifies and strengthens a number of the city’s existing policies, and clarifies Denver’s role in assisting the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Specifically, the act makes permanent the Denver Sheriff Department’s policy of not honoring ICE detainers, officially forbids city employees (including probation and corrections officers) from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, and disallows city funds from being used for immigration enforcement. City officials have emphasized that, contrary to some of the rhetoric from the Trump administration, none of the provisions in the ordinance violate federal laws governing how localities must compromise with ICE.

The Council’s original proposal also included one big change: Under the terms of the original ordinance, the Denver Sheriff’s Department would have no longer notified ICE when someone wanted on an immigration detainer was about to be released, unless the person had been convicted of a violent crime, a gang-related offense, was suspected of participating in terrorism, or ICE had a warrant signed by a judge. But in a compromise with Mayor Michael Hancock that was announced on August 16, the Council agreed to scrap this change and continue to allow communication between the Sheriff’s Department and federal immigration authorities. In exchange, jails will be required to advise the affected inmates of their legal rights, and the city will begin collecting quarterly data on individuals involved in notifications, the crimes they were accused of, and whether they were detained by ICE upon their release. Mayor Hancock will also proceed with an executive order establishing a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants.

“In the face of chaotic immigration policies coming out of Washington, we hope to foster the respect, trust, and collaboration among community members, city officials, and law enforcement that is critical to keeping Denver safe and thriving,” Mayor Hancock said during an August 16 press conference announcing the compromise.

Corrine Rivera-Fowler, policy and civic engagement director of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, says that while the network was disappointed to lose the ICE notification provision in the original ordinance, they’re pleased with the mayor’s engagement and believe the final version contains vitally important protections. “In an ever-changing environment where we have daily information about some of the awful things taking place across this country with sheriffs and ICE, it’s important to get these practices into law,” Rivera-Fowler says. “And the mayor’s executive order, which includes the legal defense fund, is a really big deal for our community.”

Late Monday night, Jeffrey Lynch, field office director for ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations in Denver, issued a statement in response to the order: “By passing this irresponsible ordinance, the city of Denver’s leadership has codified a dangerous policy that deliberately obstructs our country’s lawful immigration system, protects serious criminal alien offenders, and undermines public safety … Our goal is to build cooperative, respectful relationships with our law enforcement partners. While we will continue our efforts to work with Denver’s city government in support of public safety, it is disappointing that they have taken such an extreme step in the wrong direction.”

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It’s because of community efforts such as the Immigration Resistance Network’s phone bank that the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act—and the resulting compromise—has come to fruition. On this particular August evening, organizers Carla Castedo of Mi Familia Vota and Victor Galvan of the CIRC reminded volunteers of their goal for the night: to call as many Denver residents as they can and encourage them to contact their City Council members and ask them to vote in favor of the ordinance. On a big white board, Castedo, a young woman with long dark hair who immigrated from Bolivia with her family at the age of 3, wrote out key talking points: It means the local police don’t play the role of ICE. It prioritizes local public safety over federal immigration enforcement.

Within 10 minutes, the room was buzzing with volunteers making phone calls. At one table, an organizer helped two sisters, ages 13 and 15, who said they support the ordinance because they want their immigrant parents to feel safe, make calls. Next to them, an organizer helped an older Hispanic woman navigate the phone banking software. Across the room, two friends, Caryn Oppenheim and Allison McCarthy, both white women, made calls, occasionally exchanging laughing glances after particularly interesting conversations. Both say they believe that now, more than ever, is the time to stand up for vulnerable populations. “I think it’s always been important to me, but there’s a desperation and an urgency that wasn’t there before,” McCarthy said. “And now I feel that it’s my responsibility to my community to show up and be here.”

The message to constituents was streamlined and heavily focused on the public safety implications of communities distrusting police. “I know I feel safer when my neighbors aren’t afraid to call the police department,” said one volunteer, over and over again, in scrupulously polite conversations and voicemails. “It’ll make Denver a safer place if we can all pick up the phone to call the police and report a crime.”

Chris Lasch, a professor at DU’s Sturm College of Law, said that the ordinance represents an important first step for Denver, although he believes there’s still more work to be done. “[W]hile there is still much work to be done toward disentangling Denver and making justice available equally for everyone in the city and county, it’s encouraging to see the mayor and Council dedicated to working together with community advocates to make this happen,” Lasch said via email. “With this additional work, Denver could become a model for other jurisdictions.”

By the end of the night, the assembled volunteers and organizers had made 354 phone calls. Brandan Barbour, an intern at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos and student studying for his master’s degree in social work at the University of Denver, won the $.83 in Victor Galvan’s pocket for making the most phone calls—65 of them—and convincing all five of the people he actually spoke with to call their City Council representatives.

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“I can’t tell you how important these calls are,” Galvan said. “People are counting on City Council. For these families, this can’t come fast enough.”

Editor’s note, August 29, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect that the proposed ordinance was approved by the Denver City Council on Monday, August 28.

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