According to the Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver is a sanctuary city. Likely, he uses that term to describe cases like that of one Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant facing deportation after 20 years in the United States, who has been sheltered by the First Unitarian Church while seeking refuge from ICE . However, the term itself has become something of a misnomer; in truth, there is no sanctuary to be had in any American city.
Despite the mayor’s claims to the contrary, there is very little that Denver, or the state of Colorado, can accomplish regarding the massive wave of deportations that will be carried out under the Trump administration’s crackdown on Muslim migrants, Syrian refugees, and undocumented Central Americans. Irrespective of their flowery declarations of solidarity, a city government is fundamentally incapable of opposing the upcoming surge in ICE raids. To understand the impotence of a state response, this essay will unpack the obstacles facing any genuine effort from city officials in Denver, as well as the actions of radicals, ICE, and the local police.
Altogether, this analysis will conclude with a harsh assessment of reality: outside of radical community defense, immigrants and refugees have no hope to remain in safety for long.
ICE LURKS AROUND EVERY CORNER
Two disturbing trends have emerged as ICE extends their influence within Denver: first, agents are stalking their potential detainees and pouncing on them when they’re most vulnerable. The Meyer Law Office released a video in February, showing two ICE agents skulking around the halls outside a courthouse. One Whitney Leeds, Esq. was there to capture the event on video. The agents avoid her questions, and refuse to clarify the purpose of their presence in the courthouse. It quickly becomes obvious they are waiting for someone to emerge from a hearing — an unrelated court matter has been turned into a trap door.
Second, this same method of surprising an immigrant or refugee has been deployed at local schools. ICE agents will lie in wait until an undocumented parent has dropped their child off at school, before emerging to make a sudden arrest . This behavior has sent a fresh wave of anxiety through the community: the agency has made it clear they will resort to uncouth and devious methods to capture their targets.
Additionally, the local police have continued their “homeless sweeps,” wherein officers break up encampments, steal clothing and shelter from the homeless, and force them to seek new refuge elsewhere . It should come as no surprise that across the nation, undocumented folk or refugees who have become homeless are nabbed during these sorts of raids, and are turned over to ICE for detention and deportation . Those captured in this manner will not be aware of their ultimate fate until ICE is already preparing their removal from the country.
POLICE COOPERATION WITH ICE AGENTS
Currently, there is no standard by which local law enforcement are required or restricted in their communication with ICE. In 2014, after a ruling from an Oregon judge determined a detained woman had her 4th Amendment rights violated, police in Colorado stopped complying with ICE’s “detainer requests,” whereby a person could be held beyond their schedule release dates for the purposes of deportation.
The ACLU found that, by and large, Colorado’s police have been observing this ruling. 30 counties have a specific policy against the practice. Yet police are still free to communicate with ICE on their own, leading to a slipshod system of accountability: some departments will only supply information about their undocumented arrestees if ICE makes a request, but others claim they voluntarily inform ICE whenever an immigrant or refugee is picked up, even for minor violations .
This has turned jailhouses into extensions of ICE’s jurisdiction. The agency itself has a quota to meet: roughly 34,000 immigrants are detained at any given time, an arbitrary number ostensibly meant to spur ICE into more “proactive” methods of locating suspects . But it also means an immigrant can spend months, potentially years, behind bars before being released. Worse yet, about half of these detainees are held in for-profit prisons who are paid by the bed, meaning there is no incentive to speedily process these individuals, even if they will eventually be released without further issue. Horrifically, some immigrants — including 62,000 in the Aurora municipality — were forced into prison labor while being detained . Their capture and imprisonment maintained ICE’s budget, enriched private prison companies, and supplied labor to various private entities.
Left to their own devices, the police will cooperate with ICE whenever it becomes convenient to do so. Their victims will languish in detention facilities, sometimes alongside their entire families, in poorly-supplied tent cities, waiting for the inevitable.
LEGAL PRESSURES ARE USED TO PREVENT SANCTUARY
Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo  calling for increased scrutiny and harsher punishments for undocumented immigrants, and requiring prosecutors to lean towards more felony sentences when dealing with undocumented immigrants, those who have reentered after deportation, and those who commit identity fraud. However, an additional point was made: anyone transporting or harboring these immigrants should receive a similar crackdown. Sessions seemed to be referring mostly to those who transport immigrants, like coyotes, but the word “harboring” rings of deliberate vagueness.
This comes on the heels of Trump’s threats to cut federal funding to cities who are identified as sanctuaries , either by choice, or by determination of the president’s administration. The exact amount that can be withheld is subject to debate, but the end result is the same: cities that express sympathy towards immigrants and refugees will be pressured by the federal government to surrender, threatened with financial starvation. Additionally, multiple states have begun passing legislation specifically targeting forms of protest, opening the door for more forceful suppression from the state .
In a feeble response, Denver’s Democrats have attempted to build a legislative barrier, introducing a bill which would make Denver a legally-designated sanctuary city, the first in the country. Without bipartisan support, it was doomed from the start, and therefore an impotent, performative attempt at securing “official” sanctuary status through official channels.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is increasing the means by which ICE will capture, cage, and exile immigrants and refugees, building upon the infrastructure which Obama used to the same effect . However, he will be operating with total loyalty from all three branches of government, the Supreme Court, police, ICE, and elements of the Intelligence Community. Trump has expressed his intent to boost Provision 286(g) of ICE’s deportation program , which authorizes the DHS to deputize state law enforcement for the purposes of enforcing federal immigration laws .
Nothing done by the Democratic party itself can, or will, challenge this trend – they have vocally opposed Trump’s behavior, yet obediently confirmed his cabinet nominees. John F. Kelly, his pick for head of the DHS, is a border security hawk. Likely, his confirmation will progress without a hitch.
This leaves community activists in a grim set of circumstances. On the one hand, the federal government, under Trump’s control, can stretch and bend legal boundaries infinitely in order to secure the detention of immigrants and refugees. On the other hand, their state governments are either A) unwilling to act against the White House, B) in collaboration with 45’s anti-immigrant agenda, as in the case of Mississippi , or C) willing, but completely unable. And the reason for the latter is very simple: the city government of Denver cannot, and will not, openly contest the authority of its police force.
A CITY CANNOT OPPOSE ITS OWN POLICE FORCE
The inescapable reality is this: the authority of Denver rests in its police, not its government. The police exist as an extension of the government’s will; this has been the case since the Norman sheriff became the stand-in for a king’s authority during the 11th century. Their presence is only necessary when class conflict requires a wealthy elite to suppress an occupied majority.
But the police are not totally beholden to the state’s will. As exemplified by police unions (a garish imitation of worker unions, which are designed to empower the oppressed), the police are capable of wielding their essentialness to the state against their employers. They can strike, they can endorse candidates, and they can — as in the example above — decide to enforce or ignore certain regulations to suit their own objectives, and to pressure the government to fall in line. The Fraternal Order of Police have already expressed to Trump their desire for punitive treatment of those cities refusing to comply with ICE .
A sanctuary city cannot exist when, as in Denver, the great bulk of officers are FOP members and/or Trump supporters. To force a police department to refuse cooperation with ICE would pit the city government against the vessel which manifests its willpower to coerce and cajole the working population. Even the most genuine effort from Denver’s mayor to curtail the abuse of immigrants and refugees would require confronting the power of his police, which in turn would jeopardize the city’s power to control its daily operations.
Put bluntly, a “sanctuary city” is an oxymoron.
Without radical, community-based operations designed by, and for, refugees and immigrants, “sanctuary” is but a desperate plea to an unfeeling political machine.