Aurora City Council squabbles over joining citizenship organizations

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Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” hangs on a wall for a U.S. citizen class offered through the Community College of Aurora on Lowry Campus. Students who take the naturalization test are asked 10 questions about the United States where they must answer six correctly to pass. That part of the test is oral, given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and test takers are graded on their ability to speak English.  They’re also graded on a brief reading, and written portion of the exam. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Aurora may be the newest city to join two groups aimed at providing more resources for immigrants, one that has stirred dispute among the body, as some city council members say the organization seems to support and promote sanctuary city policies.

Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who brought forth the measures nearly a year-and-a-half ago, asked fellow lawmakers to support joining Cities for Citizenship and Welcoming America Network at Monday’s special study session.

The body as a whole didn’t seem to have any reservations about joining the Welcoming America Network, but four city council members — Dave Gruber, Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins and Curtis Gardner — voted against spending $750 for an annual membership fee with Cities For Citizenship, which city staff described as a “major national initiative aimed at increasing citizenship among eligible U.S. permanent residents  and encourages cities across the country to promote citizenship efforts among immigrants and refugees.”

New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti along with the National Partnership for New Americans and the Center for Popular Democracy formed Cities For Citizenship in 2014.

Councilwoman Francoise Bergan said those names would “send up a lot of red flags” to some Aurora residents.

“Non-partisan is just a tax term,” Gruber said of the group, which has nearly 90 cities and counties in its membership, including Denver, Tulsa, Dallas, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

He said some of the coalition members of Cities For Citizenship are supportive of sanctuary city policies, something Aurora has been clear it is not. But Councilwoman Crystal Murillo said the distinction that Cities for Citizenship support sanctuary cities was a leap. “None of the text on the website on this organization says any of those things,” she said.

Staff said joining the organizations would still mean Aurora makes its own judgments on immigration policies and does not have to completely subscribe to any recommendations the groups may make. 

Joining would be most beneficial for gaining access to resources, said Ricardo Gambetta, head of the city’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs. He added that Aurora is, in some cases, doing more work to support immigrants and refugees than cities in those groups, but without membership can’t access technical assistance, resources, best practices, and educational and training opportunities.

Aurora is now home to people from more than 140 countries, according to Gambetta’s office. About 20 percent of residents are foreign born.

Councilwoman Alison Coombs said she thought it “disingenuous to say we want people to do it the right way and refuse resources and opportunities” on the basis that the organization built a broad coalition, one that everybody may not be supportive of all of the time.

The two proposals will now have to be approved by a majority of lawmakers during a regular city council meeting.