One of the pillars of American society is succinctly laid out by the Sixth Amendment, the right to a fair trial.
Few things illustrate the power of the U.S. Constitution like the part that makes it clear the government cannot arbitrarily impose criminal convictions or imprisonment.
You don’t have to be a student of the law or constitutional policy to be familiar with this concept. Every TV crime show since the inception of the airwaves has indoctrinated everyone into this important foundation of American justice: “You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
The nation, Colorado and even Aurora have for generations struggled to make good on that constitutional guarantee. While public defender programs thrive, they are often underfunded and overwhelmed.
But even the most meager legal representation of a defendant can have a profound impact on the outcome of a case.
In Aurora, and across the state, that is most obvious is the courtroom outcomes of those accused of violating immigration law.
Shockingly, those facing deportation actions in Aurora do not get the same justice others are afforded, or even those who aren’t citizens that face criminal proceedings.
While there are private groups working to provide legal representation to poor immigrants caught up in the nation’s chaotic and politicized immigration policies, they are inundated.
Aurora councilmembers considered and narrowly defeated a program to leverage a relatively small taxpayer-funded budget to close the gap in this glaring constitutional inequity.
Not enough Aurora lawmakers are behind the proposal to seed a public defender program with $50,000 for Aurora residents drawn into deportation, where legal assistance makes a world of difference. The program would have provided legal help to the poorest Aurora residents. It would have been structured to capture private philanthropy to help make it grow.
Even without the city’s intervention and support, it’s important to ensure the community provides this critical legal assistance.
Denver has such a nascent program. Officials there recognized the need when discovering that immigrants with legal help are 10 times more likely to avoid deportation than those floundering in the courts by themselves.
Broken and unjust immigration laws negatively affect the entire community, and Aurora is a clear example of that. Residents who’ve lived and worked hard for years can be uprooted with no ability to become “legal” in the chaos of the American immigration bureaucracy, simply for not being able to navigate the quagmire. Often, these hard-working residents pay taxes just like everyone else, rent or buy homes, buy from local stores and contribute to the community in the same ways we all do.
It’s a fact that many Aurora immigrant families are a mix of those with and without documentation, something our politicized Congress has never addressed.
A majority of city lawmakers say such a program, modeled after Denver’s, shouldn’t be the focus of the city.
With no other programs available, it absolutely is.
Aurora residents are being subjected to a patently unjust loophole in constitutional equal protection for a fair trial.
The city regularly spends tax dollars on programs that elevate the needs and challenges of its residents and businesses. Aurora goes to great lengths and expense to ensure and regulate its marijuana industry. Even loyal political conservatives work to protect this industry from those in Congress fighting hard to end prohibition and constrict the city’s federally businesses — which are illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
Politicizing the distinction of citizenry doesn’t dismiss the city’s responsibility to care for its residents affected by those politics.
Immigrants, too, pay taxes, generate jobs and are a provably critical part of the local and regional economy.
But most important, ensuring the constitutional rights of every Aurora resident is the right thing to do. We are a community that creates vast, costly programs to police our streets, fund our schools and care for those in need.
These immigrants are in desperate need of legal assistance as Congress tries again, and anew, to create a workable, equitable and humane immigration policy representative of the longstanding truth about the United States. We are nearly all immigrants here, and we are a nation — and city — of immigrants. Ignoring that doesn’t make it untrue, and ignoring the constitutional protections of our neighbors undermines us all.
City lawmakers should reconsider such a program and find a way to make it work.