Denver Fights Back Against Trump’s Deportation Crackdown with Surprisingly Simple Change in Law

Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post, May 24, 2017

As the Trump administration’s war on “sanctuary cities” heats up, cities have come up with increasingly creative ways to fight back. The latest example comes from Denver, which just passed a law aimed at protecting legal immigrants from being deported for committing relatively petty crimes, those carrying maximum sentences of 365 days — the federal government’s tripwire for kicking people out.

The city’s solution? Simply take a bunch of those relatively petty offenses and reduce the maximum penalty to less than 365 days. Just like that, the move takes the crimes (and their perpetrators) off the radar of immigration authorities.

It’s not a novel approach to protecting immigrants, but coming as a direct response to President Trump’s crackdown, it’s particularly timely.

The action does not affect more serious crimes and does not protect undocumented immigrants. Under federal law, an immigrant living in the United States legally can be deported for committing a low-level crime, like shoplifting or trespassing, as long as that offense carries a potential sentence of one year.

This means that even someone living in the country with a green card or student visa can be flagged to immigration officials — and deported — for such misdemeanors.

Tens of thousands of legal residents have been deported for relatively minor offenses in recent decades. But under previous administrations, immigration authorities have often let low-level offenders off the hook. Now, under Trump, immigrants feel the threat of deportation more than ever, advocates say, whether they are residing here legally or not.

The proposal passed Denver’s city council Monday night. In making the change, Denver is sending a clear message to the federal government that it will not “bend to a broken immigration system,” said the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, who proposed the sentencing revisions. They will help “keep families together by ensuring low level offenses, like park curfew, are not a deportation tool,” he said.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Previously, nearly all municipal crimes in Denver carried a maximum sentence of 365 days. But under the new approach, that maximum year-long sentence is only reserved for seven of the most serious offenses, including violent assaults and repeated domestic violence.

Crimes including shoplifting, trespassing, the first or second instance of domestic violence, and simple assault will now be eligible for a maximum 300 days in jail. Even pettier offenses, such as public urination, and curfew violations would merit up to 60 days.

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Denver is just one of dozens of cities and states across the country doing battle with Trump administration executive orders aimed at cracking down on immigration and travel.

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Yet despite Hancock’s efforts to push policies that protect immigrants, the mayor has refrained from calling Denver a “sanctuary city.”

“The mayor has literally said you can call us whatever you want,” Amber Miller, communications director for the mayor’s office, told The Post. The term has “no legal meaning,” she said.

“We are operating in a very vague environment right now,” Miller said. The mayor is “focusing on taking real actions that will actually impact people’s safety,” she said. “Labels don’t get you that.”

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Some immigrant advocates say the proposed sentencing restructuring doesn’t go far enough, and suggested lessening even higher-level misdemeanor sentences to 364 days in jail to help keep offenders off the federal radar, the Denver Post reported.

This would remove Denver from the “business of immigration enforcement,” Julie Gonzales, the policy director for the Meyer Law Office, a Denver firm that specializes in immigration cases, told the newspaper.

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