Republicans in some conservative parts of Colorado seem eager to quell the political winds leading the “non-sanctuary city” movement. 

Officials in the Republican strongholds of Weld County and the city of Montrose recently rejected a pair of resolutions that would have declared their status as “non-sanctuary cities.” They argued the resolutions were nothing more than “political theater” despite them having significant support within the community. 

Similar resolutions have already passed in conservative parts of the state like Mesa County, Garfield County, and cities like Colorado Springs, Monument, and Aurora. They’re appearing at a time when Denver is still trying to balance its response to the surge of more than 40,000 migrants over the last year as well as its increasing incidences of homelessness, both of which are causing policy and political headaches for politicians across the state. 

Montrose city officials killed their resolution by a 3-2 margin on March 19, but some advocates remain concerned about the popularity of similar resolutions in other parts of Colorado. 

“These local efforts to deter migrants will not alleviate the pressures driving people to migrate, nor will they alleviate the human suffering resulting from such migration,” said Raquel Lane-Arellano, communication manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. 

Reactionary response

The debate over Montrose’s status as a sanctuary city began in earnest on March 5. Multiple residents told city council during a regularly scheduled meeting about their concerns of the potential harm of illegal immigration, which seemed to be a reactionary response to Denver’s handling of the crises.

Mother Jones reported that Denver has received the most migrants per capita out of any city in the country, and Mayor Mike Johnston has estimated that the city could spend upwards of $120 million to combat the crisis by the end of 2024. Johnston has also gone on both conservative and liberal news stations to call on Congress to provide more help in addressing the issue, but almost no resources have arrived thus far. Meanwhile, the city plans to close four migrant shelters and is scaling back its aid to new migrants to save money.

One Montrose resident told the council on March 5 that he didn’t want to see the city experience the same “disastrous sanctuary city policies” that have impacted cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Oxnard, California. Another resident said the impacts of the “business of illegal immigration” on the city’s crime rates, schools, housing, and medical facilities would be “enormous.” 

Montrose officials reacted to the talk by calling a special meeting on March 7 to discuss passing a formal resolution declaring their “anti-sanctuary city” status. The body adopted the resolution by a 4-1 vote, but needed to ratify it at the council’s next regular meeting for it to become official. Term-limited Mayor Barbara Bynum voiced the lone “no” vote and described the resolution as “performative” and noted that the resolution “legally means nothing, and changes nothing,” the Montrose Daily Press reported. 

Weld County Commissioner Kevin Ross told 9News on March 11 that county officials rejected a similar resolution because it had “no actionable items” and seemed more like a “campaign statement.” 

By March 18, the reactionary fires inside Montrose’s city hall had seemingly died down. The Montrose Daily Press reported that enough city officials changed their mind to kill the “non-sanctuary city” resolution.

But city council also seemed to grasp how unpopular their vote to reject the resolution would be in a county where 67% of active voters aligned with immigration hardliner Donald Trump in the 2020 election

Misinformation cycle

The tension inside Montrose city hall on March 19 was palpable. Residents crammed into the standing-room-only council chambers for most of the night, even after the city opened up two overflow rooms for people to participate in the proceedings.

Reed began the public hearing by warning residents not to cheer or clap after a speaker finished, and police were instructed to escort offenders out of the room. Those instructions seemingly became more difficult to follow as many residents reinforced their resentment of so-called sanctuary city policies by echoing right-wing talking points.

One resident prayed for wisdom for the city council before saying that Montrose has “no moral duty to care for the citizens of other countries with sanctuary city policies.” He ended by saying “Trump 2024 and we’ll get rid of all of this.” Another resident said becoming a sanctuary city would make Montrose a “soft target” for the “bad people from Venezuela” that are immigrating to the U.S. and Colorado. There was another who cloaked himself in rhetoric by claiming his ancestors conducted the northernmost point of the underground railroad before saying “illegal immigration is destroying our country.” The statements were met with brief applause before Reed banged his gavel to issue another warning to the crowd.

Reed paused the proceedings at a couple of points in an attempt to clear the air about what was being voted on that night. Reed said the resolution council was considering would reject the label of a sanctuary city altogether. “Montrose is not a sanctuary city, it never has been and there is no intention to declare Montrose a sanctuary city,” he said.

“By definition, we are a non-sanctuary city. Excuse the reference but it’s like being pregnant—you either are or you aren’t,” Reed said.  

But Reed’s denouncement did nothing to quell the conspiracy-laden screeds that residents shared over the next couple of hours. Many residents cited articles from Breitbart, Fox News, and Judicial Watch about immigrants committing crime in California, Texas, Georgia and New York. Some residents said Montrose shouldn’t accept any immigrants until it takes control of the “cartel activity” in town. 

The American Immigration Council says there is no singular definition of the term “sanctuary city” but it broadly refers to policies that prohibit local authorities from sharing immigration data with federal officers. These laws also do not prevent illegal immigrants from being deported. AIC cites multiple studies showing that such policies have also been shown to reduce local crime rates by up to 35%; decrease rates of poverty by about 2.3%, and improve labor force participation rates for youths aged 16 and up by 2.5%. It also notes that no studies have demonstrated a link between sanctuary policies and increased crime.

Other Montrose residents attempted to push back against the narratives parroted by their neighbors. One person said approving the non-sanctuary city resolution would be counterproductive toward the city’s other goals of improving the relationship between law enforcement and residents. Another claimed that the city could blunt any impact of immigration by investing in more services instead of spending money on golf course renovations.

“It is important to recognize that immigrants are an integral part of Montrose and surrounding areas,” Lane-Arellano said. “They are our neighbors, colleagues, teachers, parents, students, farmers, and business owners. Many members of these communities are farmworkers who contribute significantly to our local economy and culture.”

Political cinders

Even though Weld County and Montrose officials voted down an official resolution declaring themselves a “non-sanctuary city,” there are still political cinders smoldering in their respective communities.

Some Montrose residents were visibly shocked when the resolution was voted down after hearing multiple hours of testimony from residents supporting it. Council members Ed Ulibarri and Dave Frank also expressed interest in releasing their own official statements saying the city will not provide services to “illegal immigrants.”

A similar story is occuring in Weld County, where Trump won nearly 58% of the vote in 2020. A few days after the county commissioners rejected a non-sanctuary city resolution, Republican House Rep. Mike Lynch sent a letter to the body asking it to declare that it will not spent “a dime of Weld County citizen’s money…to contribute to those who are disrespecting the laws of our nation by being here illegally.”

Lynch is currently on probation after pleading guilty in Oct. 2022 to driving under the influence and being in possession of a firearm while intoxicated.

Lane-Arellano said the impacts of the resolutions are clear, even if they didn’t pass.

“These actions send a chilling message to immigrants, regardless of their status, that they are not welcome in our communities,” Lane-Arellano said. “The decision to adopt such resolutions based on fear rather than fact not only harms immigrants but also fosters division within our society.”