U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers emerged equipped with military-style gear as protesters blockaded their headquarters in Centennial, Aug. 2, 2018. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Gov. Jared Polis told Colorado Matters on Monday that although he disagreed with how Immigration Customs and Enforcement was fundamentally doing its job in Colorado, he was not going to interfere with the work between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

“These relationships between local law enforcement and federal law enforcement is an extremely important relationship, and we’re not about to tell local law enforcement what their relationship with other law enforcement agencies should be,” Polis said. “That’s a very important relationship to keep people safe … ICE is absolutely a legitimate law enforcement agency.”

The comments may disappoint immigration advocates and some state lawmakers who have been toiling on legislation that seek broader protections for undocumented immigrants and establish “bright lines” between federal law enforcement and state and local authorities.

Polis, who was known nationally as a U.S. Representative for being a fierce proponent of immigrant rights, has told lawmakers and advocates he won’t sign any “sanctuary” legislation.

A bill that would have shielded crime victims from ICE and would have blocked public and semi-public agencies, like hospitals and universities, from divulging client or student information to ICE without a judicial warrant died quietly in negotiations with the governor’s office earlier this month.

Gov. Jared Polis in his office Monday March 25 2019.

Alex Scoville/CPR News

“I certainly stand with our immigrant communities and Colorado for all, and we value everyone’s contribution to our state and we want everybody to thrive,” Polis said. “Again, law enforcement is fundamentally local.”

Some advocates are holding out hope they can get two noteworthy immigration components to Polis’ desk in the next 40 days — a ban on detainers, which is when ICE asks local law enforcement to hold someone for longer than his or her sentence or after posting a cash bond, and establishing rules that ban state probation officers from working with ICE or giving federal officers information about clients.

“It is a lot less than what was hoped for, and I think that is primarily because we have received certain signals from the governor’s office that as robust and bold as we wanted to be in this immigration law we’re not going to be able to get through,” said Denise Maes, at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “We’re going to keep working at it.”

Advocates say Polis’ tone and comments about undocumented immigrants have fundamentally shifted since he was a Democratic member of Congress from Boulder. In Washington, he was known nationally for stomping for DREAMers and urging a path to citizenship in debates about immigration reform.

Those advocates call Polis disappointing as governor, so far.

“We pushed so hard for him to be governor,” said Jossy Martinez, director of the board at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, who called Polis the single obstacle in passing broader state legislation that could help undocumented immigrants.  

“We were door-knocking, canvassing,” she said. “I have become really disappointed when I found out he was not supporting us on this. How is it that you came and got all of our support and then he says, ‘just kidding’?”

Hans Meyer, an immigration lawyer and advocate who has had dozens of clients picked up at probation appointments or after they were held by local police at ICE’s request, said Polis was a hero in Congress.

“His track record was amazing. He stood up for immigrant rights, he stood up for immigrant communities, and now in the Trump administration he has an opportunity to stand up at the state level,” Meyer said. “We need him. He needs to sign legislation that protects immigrant communities and draw bright lines between state and local governments and ICE.”

But it’s unclear what path they have at this point — unless legislative leadership is willing to send him a bill he will veto.

Democratic House Speaker KC Becker wouldn’t talk about earlier stalled out efforts and negotiations between her office and Polis’ on immigration reform.

But she said she had an appetite to try to get something to Polis’ desk that made immigrants feel safer in Colorado.

“The immigrant population in Colorado is important to us. It’s a big part of our community and right now with the current administration, people don’t always feel safe. They don’t feel safe reporting crimes, they don’t feel safe going to public spaces, that’s not the Colorado we want,” Becker said. “If we can find a way to legislatively address the concerns, that’s what we’re going to do.