On dueling ‘sanctuary’ bills, lawmakers talk past, offend each other

Author: John Tomasic - April 11, 2017 - Updated: April 11, 2017

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducting a raid. (AP / US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducting a raid. (AP / US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The Republican-controlled state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday heard dueling hot-button “sanctuary” bills and saw members and witnesses talk past each other, wrestle with language and come to no agreement.

The committee voted on party lines to pass the Republican bill and kill the Democratic bill.

Republican Senate Bill 281, titled the “Colorado Citizen Protection Against Sanctuary Policies Act” is sponsored by conservative Senators Vicki Marble from Fort Collins and and Tim Neville from Littleton. The bill would lift immunity for public officials for any personal injury “caused as a result of a jurisdiction creating sanctuary jurisdiction policies.” A version of the proposal was killed earlier this year by members of the Democratic majority in the House.

That bill in its House and Senate versions has engaged in a call and response with Thornton Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar’s House Bill 1230, titled the “Protect Colorado Residents from Federal Government Overreach” act. Salazar’s bill was sponsored in the Senate by Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat and Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Democrat. The bill aims to guard against any unconstitutional policies pushed in Washington that attempt to detain or monitor Colorado residents based on religion, ethnicity or immigration status.

The battle over word use and definitions, the offenses given and taken on both sides during the hearing, seemed inevitable given the bill topics. Similar clashing marked the end of the state budget debate in the House last week.

Did the bills concern “illegal aliens” or “undocumented immigrants”?

What is a “sanctuary jurisdiction”? The term seemed clear as crystal to one side and a muddled talking point to the other.

Republicans felt Democrats were pulling punches in their language, afraid to call a thing what it is for fear of offending, and seeing racism where there was none.

Democrats felt Republicans, however intentionally, were using language as a cudgel, unafraid to stir up race- or religion-based resentment toward an overwhelmingly law-abiding population that conservatives nevertheless have come to see as posing a terrifying threat to public safety.

Witnesses for the bills said they’d seen bullying and harassment kick up over the last year, as first the Trump campaign and then the Trump administration aimed intense rhetoric at undocumented residents and Muslim refugees and travelers from Muslim countries, giving what was once far-right fringe language official gloss.

They said they thought the Republican bill would do something similar in Colorado by writing biased and inflammatory language into the law.

“It’s racist to use the term ‘illegal alien,’” one witness told the bill sponsors. The term appears throughout Senate Bill 281.

Acting Committee Chairman John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, gaveled down exchanges more than once during the proceedings, saying the committee wouldn’t tolerate accusations about motive or character.

“How is this racist?” said Marble at one point, her voice rising. “This bill is against any illegals — the criminal element,” she said.

Committee member Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, responded.

“When someone says they’re offended, we should accept that. I think referring to people as ‘aliens’ is offensive. It’s not helpful. It’s hateful and harmful…

“We need to move away from ‘illegal alien.’ That’s not the Colorado way,” she said.

Fields proposed an amendment to the bill that would replace the term “illegal alien” throughout with the term “undocumented immigrant.”

Neville suggested he was open to the idea if making the change would move Fields to support the bill.

“One step at a time,” she said.

Neville was unpersuaded, and the committee voted against the amendment.

In the end, Fields voted to oppose the bill. She underlined testimony from law enforcement that suggested it would blur lines between federal authorities and local authorities and break down public trust built up through community policing reforms put into practice in recent years.

Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Democrat, argued that the bill was flawed for being rooted in a colloquial concept not a legal concept, that it would end in constitutional violations and perhaps intimidating and biased overreach.

“What exactly will earn a city a ‘sanctuary’ designation?” he asked.

Neville said he thought a thorough definition was provided in the bill.

Joy Athanasiou, an immigration lawyer, said the idea of sanctuary cities had been distorted by politics.

“There is no city, there is no state that prevents [federal immigration officials] from doing their job,” she said. “…Sanctuary cities are just cities that decline to use state and local tax dollars to enforce federal immigration law.”

The committee heard testimony on both bills simultaneously and debate on the proposals ran together.

Republican committee members opposed the Democratic bill partly because they didn’t agree the threat it aimed to address was imminent and partly because they thought it would draw undocumented immigrants to the state, including ones likely to commit crimes.

Colorado ACLU lawyer Denise Maes said the concern at the heart of the bill was legitimate. She cited the Trump executive orders stayed by courts that sought to prevent travelers, based on national origin — and likely religious faith, too, according to judges weighing the orders — from entering the United States.

Maes also argued that assisting the federal government in the project of classifying, monitoring and rounding up and/or detaining residents in Colorado would be a waist of limited state resources.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he thought the House bill confusingly mixed immigration status with ethnic or religious minority status. He said he didn’t think the bill fully recognized the need to protect the nation’s borders.

After the bill was voted down, Salazar promised to introduce it again next year.

“Let’s recognize that we anticipated the bill would likely die at the hands of Republicans,” he wrote at his Facebook page. “…What I want to focus on is how multiple communities came together to support refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and so many others.”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.