Aurora City Council narrowly rejects two immigrant protection measures

Aurora City Council narrowly rejected two measures on Monday night that would have given protections to undocumented residents in the form of a legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation and the creation of “safe spaces” in the city where apprehension by federal authorities would largely be off-limits.

The 6-5 vote on both measures came after more than two hours of debate and vigorous public comment, with dozens of residents calling in on both sides of the issue. Mayor Mike Coffman was the deciding “no” vote in each tally.

Things got emotional among the council members before the vote, with Councilman Juan Marcano recounting how people directed ethnic slurs at him when he was a child growing up in Texas.

“We need to be better than that as a country,” he said, imploring his colleagues to pass the measures.

Councilwoman Allison Hiltz encouraged her colleagues to also vote yes, saying Aurora’s large and dynamic immigrant community deserved to have places in the city to go to without fear of being confronted by immigration officials.

“I don’t understand why providing a basic sliver of dignity is so difficult because we are still complying with federal law,” she said.

The dual measures were put forward by Aurora councilwomen Crystal Murillo and Alison Coombs.

In an interview with The Denver Post before the meeting, they said they recognize that some critics will cite passage of the ordinances as tantamount to turning Aurora into a “sanctuary city” — a term ascribed to cities and towns that give added protection to immigrants by refusing to cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

But Murillo, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and was elected to the council in 2017, said deportation leads to too many families being split apart. She said the proposed ordinances would provide a dose of assurance to families who may be working and paying taxes but are not legally permitted to live here.

Coombs called the proposed laws a “statement of values” for a demographically diverse city where 20% of residents are foreign-born.

“When you know you’re not going to be deported, it makes for a more welcoming city,” she said.

The legal defense fund would have helped cover the cost of legal representation for “noncitizens in immigration proceedings” who live in Aurora. Coombs and Murillo said they’d like to see Aurora seed the fund with $50,000 and then have that amount triple with money from private foundations and proceeds from grants.

The fund would have been administered by Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, which was formed five years ago. The head of that office, Ricardo Gambetta, declined to comment on the legislation ahead of Monday’s vote.

Coombs cited a study from The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University that said as of the end of 2020, only 4,967 immigrants in Colorado had legal representation. There are nearly 40,000 in detention in the state, according to TRAC.

“It lets folks know we’re not going to leave you hanging if you face deportation,” Coombs said of the fund.

Aurora is home to the 1,532-bed ICE detention facility, which has been the focus of rancor and protests over immigration policies and enforcement actions in Colorado.

The second measure would have essentially codified policies Aurora already follows when it comes to how the city cooperates with federal immigration officials. It prohibited city employees, including police, from using city funds or resources to “assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”