SEMI-SANCTUARY? Aurora City Council calls for resolution to reject ‘sanctuary city’ tag

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AURORA | Several hours after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned cities that don’t comply with federal immigration laws at a White House press conference Monday, Aurora City Council members ended a roughly hour-long special meeting regarding the city’s so-called “sanctuary” status by moving forward with a proposal that would formally declare Aurora is not a “sanctuary city.”

Whether it is or isn’t in the eyes of President Donald Trump’s administration is unclear.

The tone and message from Aurora officials Monday was a nuanced departure from recent public statements intended to make it clear that local police are not immigration officers and will not be involved in the business of singlehandedly working to uncover immigration status.

At the tail end of the March 27 special study session — which drew criticism because of the format’s lack of public comment — Council Member Angela Lawson introduced a motion to draft a resolution declaring Aurora is “not a ‘sanctuary city’ but … a welcoming city.”

Council members agreed to forward the proposal to the city’s policy committee that handles public relations, which is where the recent debate on the topic was re-ignited more than a month ago.

Several council members took a renewed interest in hammering out the city’s debated status last month after a segment of the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor” mentioned Aurora, Denver and Boulder when referencing new legislation tied to “sanctuary cities.”

Council member Charlie Richardson pushed particularly hard for a formal council discussion on the topic, originally requesting for a public meeting with opportunity for public comment. But after combing Aurora city code and polling council members, Mayor Steve Hogan elected to move the discussion to a special study session, which does not allow members of the public to address council.

That peeved members of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a local social justice organization, who held a press conference in front of city hall prior to the March 27 meeting. About 60 people, some bearing signs and chanting, protested in front of Aurora city hall Monday evening.

“We are disappointed that the focus of the city is to ensure people know they are not a sanctuary city rather than working to ensure our city is welcoming and safe for everyone,” Lizeth Chacon, executive director of COPA, said in a statement. “The session on the 27th shows that City Council is ignoring the community by not allowing for public comment to be part of the session. Stop playing politics and get to work to support and protect everyone in Aurora.”

Although council did not accept comments, staff broke from standard protocol for the study session, translating the meeting as it happened into Somali, Spanish, Nepali, Burmese, Arabic and Amharic. Attendees were also invited to pen handwritten comments to the council members using slips of paper provided by city staff. The comments were expected to be given to council members after the meeting, according to City Spokeswoman Julie Patterson.

In a series of presentations given to council from Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, Court Administrator Zelda DeBoyes, City Attorney Mike Hyman and Spokeswoman Lori MacKenzie, one conclusion was made abundantly clear: The terms “sanctuary city” and “sanctuary jurisdiction” remain without formal definitions from the federal government. However, in a memo sent to several city officials, Assistant City Attorney Nancy Rodgers cited a brief from Congressional Research Services that claims “Local governments (cities and counties) that are commonly called sanctuary jurisdictions are those that have formal (written) policies or ordinances or informal policies that expressly limit their roles regarding immigration enforcement.”

All of the presenters and several council members affirmed the city continues to comply with federal immigration law and enforcement agencies.

And while the city has never before introduced a formal resolution regarding its “sanctuary city” status, standing policies at the police department and municipal jail, as well as previous public statements made by prominent city officials, have welcomed debate on the topic.

At various points in recent years, the city has issued letters to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-6th) and others denouncing its supposed status as a “sanctuary city.”

Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz has consistently said the city has complied with local protocols handed down by the local branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and followed orders pertaining to both the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) and Secure Communities, which are federal initiatives intended to help ICE agents identify and deport illegal aliens who are arrested by local law enforcement agencies.

“We do not and we will not obstruct ICE in their efforts to investigate possible immigration violations,” Metz said. “They have their role, we have ours — it’s as simple as that. We are not going to get in the way of what they have to do. We will cooperate to whatever degree we can.”

Metz said the only times APD personnel interact with ICE is when officers provide support during potentially dangerous interactions with illegal immigrants, if an interaction leads to a violent response, or during joint investigations of known violent offenders who are also known to be undocumented immigrants. Metz went on to say APD does not typically help ICE agents with so-called “round-ups” of illegal immigrants. 

In a March 17 memo sent to council members and at Monday’s meeting, Metz reaffirmed that APD patrollers have not and will not detain, investigate or arrest people “solely for the purpose of determining one’s status.”

“I think the operative word here is ‘solely,'” Metz said. “This is a word that we’ve used ever since I got here to make it very clear that if somebody is involved in criminal activity, then that’s wrong. At that point we will ask where they’re from, we will ask their immigration status, those kinds of things. But what that says there is that just for the purpose of determining their immigration status — we are not going to investigate or ask.”

Metz said despite claims to the contrary, local cops are not authorized to enforce federal immigration law by their own prerogative. Last month, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly issued a memo that expanded the debated 287(g) program, which permits local law enforcement officials to act as federal immigration agents. Kelly encouraged local agencies to enter into agreements with ICE in order to enact the program through four-week training sessions with officers. Aurora police have not entered into such an agreement, according to Metz’ March 17 memo.

There are 37 local agencies in 16 states with active 287(g) agreements, according to Rodgers’ memo.

Upon committing a crime and being booked into municipal jail, city jailers will determine someone’s immigration status, according to Metz’ memo.

“Through the jail’s routine data queries, if it is determined that they are in the U.S. illegally, it is probable that their status will be brought to the attention of ICE,” Metz wrote. “APD will not obstruct ICE from taking whatever actions they deem necessary.”

Aurora Police will still forward fingerprints from people who are detained at the city’s 72-hour jail to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which then hands those prints to ICE. After that transfer occurs, a decision as to whether to pick up an undocumented immigrant from the city’s 72-hour facility is then up to ICE agents.

If ICE determines someone is a “priority for removal,” the local agency sends the city’s jail a request for a courtesy hold, according to DeBoyes. The local jail will not honor a courtesy hold for more than four hours.

Between January 2015 and the end of last month, the city jail received 75 requests for courtesy holds from the local ICE branch, according to a report compiled by DeBoyes and her staff. Of the 75 requests ICE made in that two-year period, 21 detainees were transferred to the ICE facility and the remaining 54 individuals were transferred to county jails.

Those detainers make up only a minute fraction of total physical arrests in Aurora each year, according to Metz’ memo, which stated ICE detainees were 0.2 percent of total arrests in 2015 and 0.3 percent last year.

“The reality is here in Aurora — and even though we’ll see on TV how sometimes they’ll try to, I guess, put a fear factor into things — the (number of) folks who are here illegally committing crimes in this city is far, far less than those who are born in this country or are here legally,” Metz said. “And that’s just the reality of that.”

Dave Walcher, Arapahoe County sheriff, has said his jail would not honor ICE detainer requests due to the legal quagmire that can be spurred by holding a person without formal charges or after an arrest has been resolved, according to minutes for a council study session in September 2015. Several cities have had to settle with former prisoners who successfully argued jailers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by holding them without proper cause. Detainer requests are not formal judicial orders.

Despite constant assertions made by city officials and local police to the contrary, ICE has claimed the city has enacted policies that prevent detainer requests from being honored.

In a “declined detainer outcome report” issued the week after President Trump signed his contentious Executive Order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” ICE listed the Aurora Detention Center as a facility that will not honor ICE detainers and limits cooperation with ICE. It was the first report of its kind ICE had issued in several years.

Hyman rebuked that claim.

“I’m concerned, really, that ICE has not dug deeply into what we are doing and what the Aurora experience is,” he said.

Roberto Venegas, assistant city manager, said the city has formally asked ICE to clarify why Aurora’s jail ended up on the recent “declined detainers” report.

In Trump’s January order, his administration called to “ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable federal law do not receive federal funds,” a notion that Sessions reaffirmed in his statements Monday afternoon.

Sessions said the Justice Department would require cities seeking some of $4.1 billion available in grant money to verify that they are in compliance with a section of federal law that allows information sharing with immigration officials.

The Obama administration issued the same warning last year, telling cities they risked losing grant money in 2017 if they didn’t comply with the law.

Sessions did not detail what specific factors would trigger the government to deny or strip a city of money, only that it would take “all lawful steps to claw-back” funds to cities deemed to be out of compliance.

While Aurora has been adamant that jailers and police have not violated any federal law, the city stands to lose significant funding if the threats to withhold money from “sanctuary jurisdictions” are brought to fruition.

About 2.5 percent, or $2.5 million, of APD’s 2015 budget came from federal dollars, according to city spokeswoman Patterson.

And between 2013 and 2015, the city received an annual average of $9,273,157 in federal funds — including pass-through funds — Patterson confirmed late last year.

But citing a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hyman asserted the chances of the city losing federal funds under the new executive order are slim.

“That’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “The Supreme Court said, if you’re going to jeopardize federal funding you’ve got to first notify the government that receives that funding, or is eligible to receive that funding, in advance, so that they have to make an informed decision about whether to accept the conditions that are tied to that funding, and then the second part of that decision says that there has to be some sort of logical nexus between the funding and the penalty.”

At the end of the meeting Monday, Hogan commended city officials for continuing to abide by federal immigration policies and laws.

“I think we sometimes lose track of the fact that we have a city the size of Loveland in our community and that city that’s the size of Loveland are all of those residents who were born in some other country,” Hogan said. “And we as a city make conscious efforts to recognize and involve that community, but we also follow the law; we also do what it is that we need to do and I think we have struck that balance that works and I know that if we continue to work hard at it we’ll continue to strike that balance.”

Roughly 20 percent of the city’s population was born outside of the U.S., according to recent demographic data.

Richardson, whose comments late last month sparked the recent discourse on “sanctuary” status, expressed optimism regarding the outcome of the meeting.

“I want to say that we can’t control what’s going on in a federal agency or in the federal government, but I have not heard anything tonight that tells me that Aurora is imposing any additional burdens on the immigrant community,” he said. “And so I think that that is good news and I think we needed to get that message out and I think we have gotten that message out.”