Majority of Aurora lawmakers object to city funded legal defense fund for immigrants

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AURORA | A majority of local lawmakers shot down a proposal to create a legal defense fund for immigrants in part with city dollars, but proponents said they’ll still bring the plan to the Aurora City Council floor for a formal vote. 

Five council members and Mayor Mike Coffman objected to the plan after a heated debate in a Monday study session. 

Traditionally, the outcome would mean that sponsors drop the proposal. But it’s becoming increasingly common for council members to carry bills to the council floor even if they didn’t receive broad support in study sessions. 

If approved in a formal meeting, the proposal would create a legal fund for immigration lawyers and non-profit organizations to tap into when defending immigrants from proceedings in courts, including removal orders for deportation. Denver has a similar fund. 

Councilmembers in favor of the plan were sponsors Crystal Murillo and Alison Coombs along with Nicole Johnston, Juan Marcano and Allison Hiltz. 

Immigrants aren’t legally required to face hearings with a lawyer. But those with an attorney are more than 10 times more likely to achieve a favorable outcome in their case, according to data from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

If the plan is approved and funded, private philanthropists could add to a pot of Aurora tax dollars. That money would help overworked lawyers at nonprofits or private practices to represent more immigrants in their proceedings, said Arash Jahanian of The Meyer Law Office. The proposal sponsors added him to the meeting as an expert. 

“The impacts cannot be overstated, in terms of preserving the rights of members of our community — to live, to work, to play, to learn — undisturbed,” Coombs said of the proposal. 

The plan hadn’t allocated any money for the fund yet. Murillo aimed to put $50,000 into the fund. 

Immigrants receiving a lawyer through the fund would have to live in the city for at least 22 days — including in the city’s private GEO Inc. detention center — and earn less than 200% of the federal poverty line to apply. That would mean a single person couldn’t earn more than $2,127 per month and receive help. 

Councilmember Dave Gruber led the charge against the proposal. He was concerned with using taxpayer dollars to represent immigrants convicted of crimes as they navigate immigration courts. 

Currently, some immigrants traveling through local courts may have access to pro-bono legal representation through a bevy of organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network and Catholic Charities, if they have the capacity. 

Jahanian said the city’s fund would further support their work. He also said that many immigrants in legal proceedings face low-level criminal charges, but that they can still have legitimate claims to live with their families in the U.S.

“All this does is appoint (legal) council because the consequences are so severe,” Jahanian said of the proposal. 

Gruber also said the fund would assist immigrants transferred into Aurora who weren’t originally living here.

“A lot of those folks are from Aurora. And Councilmember Gruber is right — a lot of them are not. But we can’t ignore them,” Jahanian said. 

Bergan said that legal representation for immigrants is a good thing, but that Aurora’s tax dollars shouldn’t be put toward federal immigration matters. Proponents noted that immigrants, even undocumented residents, pay taxes. 

The debate spiraled out of control at many points during the Monday study session. Before a majority of lawmakers rejected the proposal, council members traded barbs about the use of the term “alien.” 

Gruber also refused to call Jahanian by name, calling him “The Denver lawyer” instead. The Meyer Law Office is based in Denver. 

“This political pissing match is really embarrassing for the council and really embarrassing for the city,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner said, visibly annoyed, before objecting to the proposal. 

“I have seen people make comments that we need therapy,” Berzins said in agreement. 

The study session came after a majority of lawmakers also rejected a proposal to limit city employees, including police, from assisting ICE. 

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