‘Sanctuary city?’ Aurora panel gives 1st OK to immigrant aid proposals

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AURORA | A panel of Aurora City Council members on Thursday granted initial approval to a pair of ordinances aimed at bolstering services for Aurora’s undocumented immigrants and curtailing the work of federal immigration officials within city limits.

Members of the city’s public safety policy committee unanimously approved an ordinance intended to create a legal defense fund for undocumented, indigent defendants facing a case in immigration court. The same council members also gave a thumbs up to another measure that would formally curb city personnel from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

If approved by the full council, the defense fund would create a pot of both public and private sector cash that qualifying people could use to pay for attorneys to represent them in removal proceedings, post-conviction relief, bond hearings and work permit applications, among other legal actions.

The program was framed after Denver’s immigrant legal services fund, which was created by executive order in 2017 and implemented a year later. Overseen by The Denver Foundation, the fund based in the state capital has paid out more than the $755,000 to qualifying immigrants in the past three years.

Councilmember Crystal Murillo, who sponsored the measure with Council member Alison Coombs, said she wants to create the fund in an effort to create a version of the state public defender’s office for people in immigration court, where there is no guaranteed right to legal counsel.

“One of the pillars of our legal system and judicial system is the access and the right to legal counsel, and our immigrant and refugee community doesn’t really have access to that,” she said.

The proposed language in the ordinance suggests that five out of six people detained at the Aurora Detention Facility managed by The GEO Group Inc. on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement move through their legal proceedings without a lawyer. Those with an attorney are more than 10 times more likely to achieve a favorable outcome in their case, according to numbers from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

“The legal defense fund would serve a direct benefit to those locked up in the GEO detention center and to many other immigrants in Aurora,” Arash Jahanian, a Denver civil rights attorney, said before the public meeting Thursday.

Coombs said the establishment of the fund is particularly pressing as the GEO site on Oakland Street has been the epicenter of several large outbreaks of COVID-19 among detainees and staff in recent months.

It’s unclear how many people the fund could assist if it were to be created, officials said, as its finances remain vague. Murillo said she plans to request $50,000 to get the fund off the ground when council members consider the spring supplemental budget early next year.

With plans to pad that pot with funding from the private sector, Jahanian said the monies could provide attorneys for a dozen or so people, citing that the typical legal cost to handle a bond hearing in immigration court is between $5,000 and $10,000.

If passed, the program would be overseen by the city’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, though a third-party entity similar to the Denver Foundation would be tasked with reviewing funding applicants and dispersing the legal fees.

Current plans call for the defense fund to be up and running by June 1 of next year.

The second measure passed out of the recent committee meeting would formally prohibit any Aurora staffers, including police and jailers, from using city funds or facilities from cooperating with federal immigration authorities on enforcement actions. For years, Aurora police officials have underscored that local police are not immigration officials and will not check immigration status during routine interactions.

The newly proposed measure would reinforce those standing policies.

“A lot of this mimics some of the policies that are already in place,” Deputy City Attorney Nancy Rodgers said.

The proposals mark a stark contrast to sentiment among city council members just three years ago, when several local politicos expressed concern that the city had been labeled a so-called “sanctuary city.” After weeks of public meetings on the subject, city council members ultimately rejected the sanctuary city label on a 6-4 vote.

The composition of the council has changed dramatically since that vote in spring 2017 following a pair of municipal elections that shifted the body to the left.

If passed, the agreement discussed Thursday would also formally bar the city from entering into a so-called 287g agreement with ICE, which deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration laws.

The city does not currently have such an agreement, Rodgers clarified.

The only Colorado jurisdiction to currently have such an understanding with ICE is the Teller County Sheriff’s Office, according to data reported by the federal agency.

Disagreements among ICE and local jailers occasionally bubble into the public sphere, with federal officials scolding local sheriff’s deputies for releasing wanted aliens without waiting for ICE agents to pick them up at county jails. Sheriff’s officials routinely say they alert ICE of upcoming releases with detainer requests via fax or email, but cannot hold someone in custody without cause pending an order signed by a judge.

The measures will now be forwarded to the full city council for further discussion at a study session either later this month or in early December.

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