AURORA | Sabe Kemer began her comment with a definition.
“A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or a natural disaster,” Kemer, a refugee from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, told a packed crowd in the Aurora Central High School media center Thursday night.
She followed with a demand.
“Think about that,” Kemer, her neck wrapped in a diaphanous orange scarf, demanded. “When you are running for your life, when you are running to save yourself and your family and then suddenly there is this country that is like telling you, ‘oh come here, come over, we’ll be your safe haven.’ The last thing on a refugee’s mind is to harm the country that gave them hope. The country that, in a sense, gave them safety.”
And she ended with a question.
“Do I look scary?” she asked, smiling and instantaneously eliciting a sea of laughter from the standing room-only crowd. “Don’t be afraid.”
Approximately 300 people — immigrants, refugees and many lifelong citizens — gathered at Aurora Central Dec. 1 to ask a panel of community leaders about the numerous immigrant, refugee and law enforcement policy concerns that have continued to proliferate in Aurora and nationwide following last month’s election.
The panel was composed of representatives from Aurora Public Schools, the Cherry Creek School District, Aurora Mental Health, an immigration attorney from Denver, Colorado State Refugee Coordinator Kit Taintor, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler.
The roughly two-hour-long event, officially deemed “Aurora Together,” focused mainly on Aurora’s existing immigration policies, which city and police officials have made pains to underscore in recent weeks.
“We are not here to enforce immigration,” Metz told the audience of his department’s stance. “We are not here to detain people for immigration reasons. We are not here to question or investigate an individual’s suspected immigration status. That’s not our role and we’re not going to do that.”
Brauchler solidified Metz’s position.
“I know there’s a great concern that if people contact law enforcement or the government that somehow that’s going to put them on some kind of a come-get-me immigration database,” Brauchler said. “That’s just not true. That’s just not how it works.”
Mirroring comments he made at a related press conference Nov. 30, Metz reiterated the city’s staunch stance on hate crimes.
“Hate crimes because of someone’s race, their ethnicity, their religion, their nation of origin, their sexual orientation, their age and their gender or their disability, it’s not going to be tolerated in the city of Aurora,” he said Thursday.
The chief said Wednesday there have been 25 reported hate crimes in Aurora this year. Six of those have occurred in the past month.
However, Marcelina Rivera, chief of staff at Aurora Public Schools, said the district has not seen any increased bullying or harassment since Election Day.
Over the course of his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly referenced his intentions to withhold federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities,” or municipalities that have mirrored Aurora’s agnostic stance on immigration policies.
About 1.8 percent, or nearly $11.5 million of Aurora’s overall budget in 2015 came from the federal government, according to the city’s 2015 budget documents.
Regarding local law enforcement, about 2.5 percent, or $2.5 million, of APD’s 2015 budget came from federal dollars, according to city spokeswoman Julie Patterson.
And between 2013 and 2015, the city received an annual average of $9,273,157 in federal funds — including pass-through funds — Patterson confirmed.
When asked about Aurora’s policies on immigration and law enforcement, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora), referenced his long-touted plan to craft a legal path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
“We need to be debating how to reform our immigration system instead of arguing about whether or not we should be enforcing our current laws,” Coffman said in an emailed statement. “In 2017, I will be focused on passing reforms that will allow the adults, who knowingly broke our immigration laws but not criminal laws, to be given an opportunity to come out of the shadows and have a legal status that allows them to work in this country, removing the fear of deportation.
“The young people who were taken to this country as children should have a path to become legal permanent residents based on their work history, education, or military service,” he added. “No doubt, once they have had an opportunity to come out to apply for their legal status, we need to move to a new system that requires employers to verify immigration status, makes it easier to legally immigrate to this country, and has zero tolerance for illegal immigration.”
Audience questions at the Dec. 1 forum centered largely on local and national policies pertaining to immigrants and refugees, ranging from the future status of the Obama-enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which gives preferential treatment to children who were brought into the country illegally but have lived here most of their lives, to how refugees are vetted.
Taintor, of the state’s Refugee Services Program, answered most of the questions pertaining specifically to refugees, saying, “(Refugees) are the most vetted population coming into the United States.” She referenced the lengthy and convoluted process of refugee admission, which can sometimes last as long as 30 years. The process begins with a United Nations High Commission for Refugees and touches a litany of U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the nation’s Department of State.
Taintor said 84,996 new refugees arrived in the U.S. for the first time in the last federal fiscal year, which runs October to September. Going forward, President Obama has already set the ceiling of acceptance for the current year at 110,000 refugees.
In Colorado, the state accepted slightly less than 2,000 refugees last year, Taintor said, adding the state ranks first in the nation in terms of refugee resettlement outcomes, citing that refugees in the state get jobs 84 days after they first arrive. She attempted to quell many of the questions and lingering concerns of several members of the audience.
“I would think that as long as you haven’t committed some sort of crime, that more than likely your legal status will be safe for you to continue building the lives for you and your families here in the U.S.,” she said.
Farduus Ahmed, a program assistant and community navigator with the Colorado African Organization, said, for refugees, the election is unlikely to change much, and people should accept the results.
“This was an election — whatever (the) outcome we have to accept it,” said Ahmed, a Somali national who spent her early adulthood in Uganda before coming to the U.S. as a refugee last year. “Every community in the USA was feeling something, whether they were happy or not. We were just expecting something was coming up, and it did. And we have to accept it. What’s important is that we are a community.”