Denver passed a new law this week in an attempt to keep its immigrant residents off the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Currently, immigrants who commit crimes pop up on ICE’s radar if their offenses carry a penalty of 365 days or more in jail. In the new law, petty crimes and first offenses now carry a maximum sentence of less than 365 days.
Federal law dictates that ICE will be notified even of immigrants in the country legally that commit a crime carrying at least a one-year jail sentence. Depending on the location, this means that immigrants face deportation even for committing the most minor of offenses.
The Denver Post previously reported that, under the new law, criminal ordinance violations will be broken down by top, middle and bottom levels. Middle- and bottom- level offenses include public urination, curfew violations, trespassing, shoplifting and first-time domestic violence offenses. Crimes ranked at these levels will carry a potential sentence of less than 365 days.
Top-level offenses include violent assaults and repeated domestic violence incidents. There are seven top level offenses in total, all of which are still punishable by the maximum 365 days in jail.
The plan also tightens punishments for hate crimes, so a low level offense deemed to be a hate crime could be boosted to carry a harsher penalty.
The plan for reform was proposed by the city’s mayor Michael Hancock.
“Over the past four months, the White House has issued a series of executive orders that have exacerbated our broken immigration system and have had a real impact on our community,” said Hancock in a statement. “I have heard from many who are rightfully concerned. Denver is committed to taking actions that will protect our people’s rights and keep our city safe, welcoming and open.”
The city also recently started allowing residents to resolve traffic tickets via mail rather than having to appear in court. The increased presence of ICE has left immigrants fearful to go to certain public places, according to Amber Miller, communications director for the mayor’s office.
“We are seeing ICE at our courts more and more looking to pick up undocumented immigrants,” Miller told the Washington Post.
Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson said the new option is also financially strategic, ABC 7 Denver previously reported.
“We think it’s going to really help to clear court dockets because we won’t have to have as many in court hearings. We also won’t have to have prosecutors and public defenders staffing those cases,” according to Bronson.
Increased presence of ICE at courthouses has also left victims of violence afraid to report to court resulting in potential violent offenders walking free.
“We have four alleged perpetrators of domestic violence who are back out on the streets without any kind of punishment, and that concerns us greatly as we try to keep Denver a safe and welcoming community,” Bronson said in February, ABC 7 Denver also reported.
“They were undocumented and, as a result of recent developments, they were unwilling to continue with the cases. We will be having to dismiss the charges of the alleged perpetrators of that domestic violence,” she added.
Under previous presidential administrations immigrants considered to be low-level offenders have not been a priority for ICE, which instead was directed to focus on apprehending more serious criminals. But President Donald Trump has targeted all immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, as he continues to perpetuate the false narrative that immigrants are more likely to be criminals.
As DiversityInc previously reported, immigrants are not more likely than native-born citizens to be criminals. Studies suggest that the opposite may even be true. Cities that harbor immigrants have been found to sometimes be even safer than others.
In fact, as the immigrant population has increased over the years, rates of violent crime have decreased. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of undocumented immigrants went from 3.5 million to 11.2 million.
“During the same period, FBI data indicate that the violent crime rate declined 48 percent which included falling rates of aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and murder,” the study states. “Likewise, the property crime rate fell 41 percent.”
The pattern held true over a period of time and spanned cities nationally particularly in cities that have been welcoming to the immigrant population.
“Some scholars suggest that new immigrants may revitalize dilapidated urban areas, ultimately reducing violent crime rates,” the researchers state.
In Denver, some advocates for immigrants had suggested that the reform plan does not do enough and said that even top-level offenses should carry less than a year of punishment.
But Hancock stated that the reforms as written “protect the community from violent offenders and hateful actions” while also quelling fears in the immigrant community.
Hancock has not called Denver a “sanctuary city” but follows practices similar to those of others that have embraced this designation. According to the Denver Post, “The Denver Sheriff Department says it notifies ICE when it has inmates whoare wanted for deportation, but that it will not hold them longer than their sentences or bond dates to wait for immigration officers to pick up the inmate. The city will hold immigrants if there is a federal arrest warrant that has been issued by a judge.”
“Sanctuary city” is not a legal term and carries varying meanings city by city. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just this week released a memo with the administration’s first attempt at a definition of “sanctuary cities,” which he and the administration are attempting to take federal funding from.
The designation “refer[s] only to jurisdictions that ‘willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373,'” according to the memo.
Section 1373 states that government and other entities may not “prohibit” or “restrict” Immigration and Naturalization Service information. But it does not and, constitutionally, cannot force city police departments to act as immigration agents.
Sessions’ definition is vague, however, and most cities the memo is meant to target are likely already operating under the law.
“If sanctuary just means violation of 1373, that law has been around since 1996 and for the most part most major cities have dealt with this, most legal departments in major cities have dealt with this [and] have already written around 1373,” law professor Rick Su told The Atlantic.