Thornton resident Tangi Lancaster, a survivor of sexual assault, stood before the Westminster City Council recently to passionately decry Councilor Bruce Baker's statement that some say put undocumented immigrants in the same group as rapists, murderers and bank robbers.
"I can tell you without hesitation sexual assault is, in fact, not equivalent in any way, shape or form to simply being unlawfully present in the United States," Lancaster, 39, a former Westminster resident, told Baker. Referring back to the long-term effects sexual violence has on survivors that you mentioned, did it ever cross your mind that a survivor such as myself would feel compelled to come here tonight to speak on this matter, reliving a horrid event?"
Lancaster was one of about 150 people who crowded the Jan. 23 Westminster City Council chamber in response to Baker's remarks, presented in a recording at a Jan. 9 council meeting, to explain his disagreement with a resolution passed by council in December titled "Building a Welcoming Community."
The resolution, approved 6-1 with Baker the lone dissenter, states the city welcomes residents of all cultures and identities regardless of race, immigration status, sexual orientation or other characteristics. It also says Westminster law enforcement will not inquire about immigration status, stating that federal authorities are primarily responsible for enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Baker wanted to include a statement saying Westminster would always cooperate with federal authorities when asked.
At the Jan. 9 meeting, in an effort to start a dialogue, Baker played a recorded tape of his thoughts on immigration law.
The recording highlighted the importance of respecting and obeying U.S. laws. He talked about "It's On Us," a national program that promotes creating an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable through four steps starting with recognizing the crime and ending with supporting the survivors, as an example of proper law-abiding practices. Eventually, he asked why being an undocumented immigrant is considered a "trivial crime," but being a rapist is unacceptable.
"So I ask my colleagues, if you would never be welcoming to rapists, murderers or bank robbers, why would you be welcoming to people unlawfully present in the United States?" he said in the recording.
At the Jan. 23 meeting, after listening to a series of speakers upset with his remarks, Baker said his message was misunderstood. He asked for tolerance with "clumsy words and examples to make a point."
"The comparison was not sexual predators to people unlawfully in the United States," Baker said.
The comparison, he said, was to the "It's on Us" program, saying he believes its template could effectively be adapted to enforce immigration law.
In a telephone interview with Colorado Community Media, Baker pointed to his website, which states: "Honest enforcement of U.S. immigration law requires the participation of all levels of government: state, county and local."
Councilmembers, however, strongly expressed their disagreement with Baker's comments.
"I am embarrassed for (Baker's) remarks," Councilor Maria De Cambra said at the Jan. 23 meeting. "We will not stand by while you spread these seeds of hatred in our community."
Speakers at the Jan. 23 meeting included residents, immigrants and immigrant rights advocates from Adams County and surrounding areas who overwhelmingly opposed Baker's comments.
Mexican immigrant Ezzie Dominguez, who is part of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition that works to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees, argued that immigrants take on valuable jobs in the community like cleaning homes and picking up city trash.
"It is us, the undocumented and unafraid immigrants," said Dominguez, who did not explicity say whether or not she was undocumented. "We are here tonight standing in front of you and telling you to listen to us, and how many of us have been victimized by people like you."
Nushin Farjadi, an Iranian-American immigrant with legal residency who lives in Westminster, talked about when her family migrated and was undocumented in the United States while filing for legal status.
"There are some times when you simply don't have the correct papers as you are applying for everything," she said.
Now, she is a legal resident and owns a veterinary clinic, which serves the community and provides jobs, she said.
Farjadi also said when she was in political prison in Iran other jailed women talked to her about the horrors of sexual assaults they had endured.
"One of the reasons people end up in the U.S. is because of sexual assault, because their lives are endangered," she said.
Erin Mooney, executive director of the nonprofit Cultivando in Commerce City that works toward building inclusive communities through leadership trainings, explained that many undocumented immigrants have entered the U.S. legally, followed the necessary steps and spent thousands of dollars toward obtaining legal status, but then must wait for a determination. In that period, they are undocumented and risk deportation.
Immigration "is not a simple process," Mooney told Baker. "If you were to dig a little deeper and talk to some folks, you would realize very quickly how broken our immigration system is and what a huge burden it puts on families."
Mooney also said her daughter is a victim of sexual assault.
"You are talking about two completely different scenarios," she said. "To use my child as a political tool to further a hateful agenda is disgusting."
A nation of laws
Westminster resident Mary Tuneberg was one of two speakers who voiced opinions in favor of immigration law enforcement.
"We must preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. We are a nation of laws and not just what feels right in the moment," Tuneberg said. "We can't protect our citizens and our private property rights if (illegal immigrants) are coming in here and stealing our services."
Adams County Commissioner Steve O'Dorisio, a former Adams County deputy district attorney, also spoke at the meeting, saying local enforcement of immigration policies could cause immigrant victims to fear seeking help.
"The policy that I think you want to set is truly putting more burden on local law enforcement, prosecutors and cops, who are already overburdened," he told Baker. "Let's not forget, it would discourage real victims, in fear of being deported, from coming forward."
During the meeting, Baker said he supports protection of rape victims who are undocumented immigrants when they come forward for help. And in an earlier interview with Colorado Community Media, he stated a need to protect all undocumented immigrant victims of any crime so that they feel comfortable contacting authorities.
In an interview after the meeting, Baker said he has received positive and negative comments from residents since the Jan. 23 meeting.
"My comments were imploring my colleagues to have dialogue with me," Baker said. "The way forward is we can't vilify people. We've got to listen in a way that we truly are concerned about our partner in our conversation."
For Douglas Pfeiffer, who attended the Jan. 23 meeting, the issue is simple. He was born in the U.S. and has lived in Westminster for nearly 20 years. A key reason he lives there, he said, is the city's diversity.
"The huge majority of (undocumented immigrants) are here for one reason only - to improve the lives of their families," he said. "They fill jobs that very few people want to take. They pay taxes...their children attend school and help documented children see beyond the borders of this country. The value they bring is well worth the cost of services they consume."