Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in a church in Denver to avoid immigration authorities for the past three months, has won a two-year deportation delay. (David Zalubowski/AP)

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.

President Trump has threatened to go after sanctuary cities, which provide protections for illegal immigrants. Chicago announced on Aug. 6 they plan to sue the Trump administration over threats to withhold public safety grant money from sanctuary cities. This is how other state and local governments with sanctuary policies have responded. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

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.

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.

“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,” Hancock said 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.”

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. Suits brought by cities and states against the orders have tied them up in courts for the time being.

In response to a court order blocking the administration’s attempt to strip funding from “sanctuary cities,” a memo released by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday offered the government’s first official definition: Sessions said sanctuary cities are those that violate a federal law requiring local and state governments to share information with federal officials about immigrants’ citizenship or legal status.


Michael Hancock, mayor of Denver, listens during a panel discussion at the Infrastructure Week kickoff event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on May 15. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg.)

Sessions has taken steps to revoke federal funding from nine jurisdictions, each of which contends that it has complied with the law, The Washington Post reported.

As a part of its budget proposal released Tuesday, the Justice Department is pushing to change federal law so that local jurisdictions can be forced to detain suspected illegal immigrants upon request. The law would block cities from enacting policies that stop compliance with legal Department of Homeland Security requests, including “any request to maintain custody of the alien for a period not to exceed 48 hours,” The Post reported.

Although Denver notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement of impending releases of immigrants from jail upon request, it is one of many cities across the country that has declined to hold inmates for ICE if they otherwise are eligible for release.

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.”

The mayor acknowledged that many will hear about the changes and feel that he is advocating for illegal behavior. But he said, “it is the right and the duty of any individual in this city to report crime without fear of being punished. We want and need Denver residents to trust local law enforcement.”

“This is not about shielding violent people,” Hancock said. “I will not play political games with the safety of our community.”

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.

The sentencing revisions, the mayor said, go “hand in hand” with a new system established in recent weeks allowing people to resolve traffic tickets by mail. Undocumented immigrants, particularly in recent months, have grown hesitant about interacting with public safety officials and going into courthouses.

Their fears are justified, Miller said. “We are seeing ICE at our courts more and more looking to pick up undocumented immigrants,” he said. As a result, many people aren’t taking care of their traffic infractions, which only get worse over time.

“We know many hard-working immigrants are afraid to come to the courthouse right now,” Hancock said. “But avoiding court dates or failing to resolve tickets is not the answer.”

This is not the first time local officials and immigration advocates nationwide have pushed for such sentencing changes.

But according to Daniel Kanstroom, a law professor and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, most U.S. citizens remain unaware of the “terrible toll,” of the harsh deportation mandates that affect legally residing immigrants, he wrote in an opinion article in the New York Times in September.

In the 1990s, new laws mandated deportation for any long-term legal immigrant for a vast array of crimes — including minor drug offenses — without the possibility of judges’ discretion, Kanstroom wrote.

“Since then, we have experienced a deportation frenzy,” Kanstroom wrote. In addition to millions of undocumented deportees, tens of thousands of legal residents have been deported as “aggravated felons” for state misdemeanors like shoplifting or for minor drug offenses, he added.

So for many advocates, Kyle Huelsman, the policy manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Denver has taken a positive step, he told the Denver Post.

“Creating automatic deportation as punishment is not a punishment we want to endorse,” he said.

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