Mayor, Immigrant Stakeholders Talk Future of Legal Defense Fund

Mayor pledges continued support to fund, awardees attest results

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Aug. 25 met with representatives from the Denver Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and clients and awardees of the Denver Immigrant Legal Services Fund to talk about the future of the fund.

“It’s very important to me that Denver continues to be a welcoming city,” Hancock said. “It’s more than just a tagline, we’ve built it into our municipal framework and it’s a value of who we believe we are as a city.”

In August 2017, Mayor Hancock signed the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act into law, based on existing city practices and establishing new policies to “reduce fear” in refugee and immigrant communities. “And to clarify, for everyone, that Denver will not engage in immigrant enforcement.”

It was also Hancock, who under executive order, created the fund. In the directives for city leadership and employees, the order mandated processes and procedures to support all Denver residents regardless of immigration status. These were to be accomplished by promoting public safety via community trust, protecting all communities and fostering trust between community members.

“Denver will continue to be attentive and engaged in the national immigration policies and the impacts they have on our community. We will push back as much as we can, as much as our power allows it, when there are those who infringe upon or create unsafe and fearful spaces for our immigrants and refugees,” Hancock said.

Although Denver is in a strange time due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hancock assured he was committed to ensuring access to resources such as the fund aren’t compromised. The fund’s webpage estimates that Denver has around 55,000 unauthorized immigrants living within the city — many of whom work and are connected to family with varying forms of legal status, which is the primary barrier to integrating successfully for immigrants. During COVID-19, ICE has continued to operate, and the fund continually provides resources for deportation defense and affirmative relief applications for many Denver residents.

Dace West, vice president of community impact at the Denver Foundation described the fund’s first year and a half as very successful, noting that the fund supports direct representation for those at risk of deportation, supports affirmative relief and supports expansion and creation of programs with a low-bono or pro bono attorney base.

“I’m pleased to report … those organizations were able to serve 337 individuals — which is pretty amazing when you think about the barriers that are in place around this type of work,” West said, adding it did not include workshops or consultations.

While it can take long periods to know the outcomes of cases, West said it was known that nine clients have won release from detention, and others won relief to remain in the U.S. with immigration status.

For those who do escape detention, West said there were many benefits, such as keeping a family together, communities staying intact and economic benefit of people continuing to work or own businesses.

“We’re very proud of the work that’s gone on in the first 18 months of the program and we’re very excited to see what happens in its next iteration,” West said.

For the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the fund was pinnacle to the group’s decision to hire two attorneys last year, Mekela Goehring, RMIAN’s executive director, said. These two new attorneys to the group to provide the first universal representation model for low income Denver residents who are detained by ICE on a merits-blind system.

Studies have shown represented immigrants are 10 times more likely to win their cases than those without access to representation, and not because facts of cases have changed, Goehring said. She added that it shouldn’t be revolutionary to provide legal representation to immigrants.

In the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, over 70% of people have gone unrepresented over the last five years, she said. The fund meant that those two attorneys hired via the fund have provided free legal support to Denver residents caught in immigration enforcement proceedings. Those two added attorneys have represented 42 clients over the past year.

— Avery Martinez

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