Last Monday, a young immigrant named Jesus stood in front of the Aurora City Council and expressed his opposition to a resolution the council was scheduled to vote on that evening. The measure, which had been proposed by Aurora council member and mayor pro tem Angela Lawson in response to the city’s appearance on several lists of “sanctuary city” jurisdictions, contained no substantive policy changes but declared that Aurora was officially not a sanctuary city.

“I’ve lived here since I was 10,” said Jesus, who sported a bushy beard and black-framed glasses at the hearing. “I’ve hoped that one day, I could buy a house and raise a family here in Aurora, this town I call home …I hope that you guys could change your mind and realize that now is the time for you guys to show that the immigrant community that lives inside this city is family to you.”

Shortly thereafter, the Aurora City Council voted in favor of the resolution, in a 6–4 vote, which stated that “Aurora intends to comply with all constitutional and lawful federal immigration laws and regulations, and will continue its practice of non-obstruction with regard to Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s efforts to enforce federal immigration laws and regulations.”

Local immigrants’ rights activists say the resolution is a painful blow, particularly in a city that’s known for its diversity. “I’ve been in this community for a decade, and this community is in fear, to a level that I have never seen before,” says Lizeth Chacon, executive director of Colorado People’s Alliance, which advocated against the measure. “This resolution is like a slap in the face to our community, and it doesn’t reflect the values that the community and council say they hold.”

The city of Aurora is not alone in grappling with its sanctuary status. Since President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January threatening to withhold federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions, cities have responded in a variety of ways. Some, like Boulder, have embraced or formalized their sanctuary city designation as a public act of defiance against the current administration. And despite the fact that a federal judge has blocked the administration from implementing its executive order, other jurisdictions, like Miami-Dade County, have rushed to pass resolutions similar to Aurora’s, citing fears of federal funding losses.

The sanctuary city debate is complicated by the fact that, for all the contentious rhetoric around the term, there’s no universally accepted definition of what exactly it means to be a sanctuary city. In its most traditional interpretation, the term “sanctuary city” refers to jurisdictions that either do not honor requests from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain undocumented immigrants beyond the amount of time the jail or detention facility would normally hold them, or that do not share information with ICE about when an immigrant is being released. 

Sergeant Chris Amsler of the Aurora Police Department says that last week’s resolution will not change their policies. The Aurora Detention Center does not honor ICE holds, but does notify ICE of release dates. APD does not investigate people solely on their immigration status, does not routinely inquire about immigration status, and does not enforce federal immigration law.

“There are two reasons why we do it that way,” Amsler says. “The first is for public safety—undocumented immigrants are part of our community, and we don’t want them to be afraid to call us if there’s an emergency or they’re victims of crime. The other reason is that we simply don’t have the authority. We’re not federal immigration officers…the law does not allow us to arrest people for committing violations of immigration law.”

In an emailed statement to 5280, Mayor Pro Tem Lawson defended the need for the resolution, and stressed that it’s not intended to change the city’s law enforcement practices with respect to undocumented immigrants. “A number of people and groups have misrepresented Aurora, and this resolution simply clarifies our practices of enforcing local laws and sharing information with ICE regarding individuals who have been arrested and booked into our detention facility,” Lawson wrote. “None of our practices are changing, and our police department will continue to focus on public safety for all.”

But Chris Lasch, a law professor at the University of Denver who studies sanctuary cities, senses politics at play here. President Trump’s executive order, he points out, is likely to be tied up in court for quite some time, and the administration is currently only targeting jurisdictions that prohibit communication with ICE (which Aurora does not do).

“What Aurora has done here… I think there’s really no way to interpret it in a positive way for the immigrant community,” Lasch says. “They’re [the city] not even targeted by this executive order. All it accomplishes is sending a message, which is one that will not provide any reassurance to the immigrant community. It’s really kind of a fascinating little piece of politics.”