CLOSE TO HOME: Distant political modifications in Washington bringing profound modifications quick to Aurora as Joe Biden reverses the Trump years

FILE – In this Jan. 21, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus in the State Dinning Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

What can be achieved through executive order can be undone through executive order. 

President Joe Briden proved that with the stroke of a pen, signing 17 executive orders on his second day in office. Many of those reversed what former President Donald Trump deemed his shining accomplishments over the course of four years in the White House.  

Biden’s orders included re-joining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, reversing the ban on immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries, stopping construction of the wall on the southern border, and squashing the former administration’s “1776 commission.” 

Those policy items became some of the most contested cornerstones of the Trump administration, and in several ways directly and profoundly affected Aurora, Colorado’s third-largest and most diverse city.  

“I’m breathing a big sigh of relief that we have somebody who is rational and logical and can lead in the White House,” Aurora Congressman Jason Crow told the Sentinel this week. “His executive orders have confirmed that.” 

Just this week, Biden took even more action with his pen, limiting the Justice Department’s reliance on private prisons (although it excludes contracts with the Immigration and Customs Agency, which hires GEO Group Inc. to run a prison in north Aurora) and directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a memorandum to take steps to promote equitable housing policy. 

Already Crow said his staffers are seeing a difference with Biden in the White House. There’s a greater sense of responsiveness and willingness to communicate from ICE now, he said.  

“That tone filters down (from the White House),” Crow said. “…But resetting that culture is going to take some time.” 

While Crow applauds the actions Biden has taken so far, he says there’s lots of work left to do. Like ending the private prison contracts ICE has.  

“I’m not going to stop until we get that done,” he said.  

Activists throughout the Aurora region share that sentiment. While they see progress during these early days of the administration, the proof will be in the long term performance of the administration and members of Congress, where Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the House and the Senate.  

A sole protestor stands beyond the threshold and on GEO property while hundreds of protestors assembled for a march at the GEO facility, July 12, in Aurora, Colorado. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Immigration 

With his Presidential pen in hand, Biden quickly issued a flurry of immigration-focused orders last week stopping deportations for 100 days and proposing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S., including those in Aurora.  

The decisions — which signal a break from the Trump administration’s aggressive deportation policies and tackle a decades-long political quagmire — were received with tentative praise by local immigration advocates. So were quick signatures to repeal the ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries.  

State Rep. Iman Jodeh, the newly-elected Democratic state House representative for District 41 in Aurora, tweeted that the morning after the 2016 election “all I could think about was whether we should move to Palestine because my mother is a Muslim woman who wears the hijab.” 

For Muslim and immigrant communities, Biden’s presidency brings a sense of cautious optimism, she told the Sentinel. She noted that her House district has a high concentration of immigrants and refugees from places that Trump disparaged as “shithole countries.”  

“I was texting with some folks and there was a collective feeling of physical relief when he was sworn in, that we can breathe again,” Jodeh said. 

But days after Biden’s orders, some advocates say he’ll need to work much harder to permanently establish a home for undocumented Aurorans and overcome the legacy of President Barack Obama’s mass deportations.  

Under Obama, authorities deported 3 million people. Biden was his vice president.  

Jessica Martinez Vasquez, a spokesperson for immigrant-focused Colorado People’s Alliance in Aurora, said seeing Biden’s moves last week was a “sigh of relief.”   

“But the biggest thing that came to mind is that there is so much to do, and so much damage has been done to our immigrant community in the last decade,” said Martinez Vasquez, who was born in Mexico. She’s a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.  

Biden penned an order to preserve DACA and protect residents like her whose parents brought them illegally into the U.S. Plus, he’s halted progress building Trump’s border wall. 

From the deportation stay to a possible path to citizenship, Biden’s immigration policies have already landed with a thud in Aurora. As Colorado’s most diverse city, about one-fifth of Aurora’s 380,000 residents were born outside of the U.S. That includes legal immigrants from Mexico and Central America and likely thousands of undocumented residents, although it’s tricky establishing just how many Aurorans are here illegally.  

“Overall, there is a lot of optimism and hope in the community that I frankly haven’t seen in a long time,” said Arash Jahanian, an immigration lawyer with the Denver-based Meyer Law Office.  

But Jahanian and Martinez Vasquez still have major caveats.  

Both advocates noted that, as Biden plans to establish an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented people, the goal has been a white whale in Congress for decades. That’s the domain of federal lawmakers, and Republicans have already mounted opposition.  

“Washington has let us down for many years, so there is a quite healthy and understanding skepticism of what might get done. But it is certainly a really nice start,” Jahanian said.   

And while federal officials write new deportation guidelines — which are expected to tamp down the Trump administration’s efforts — the 100-day deportation moratorium isn’t without issues, Jahanian said.  

He said court proceedings will continue, and ICE isn’t required to release detainees. He’s concerned that detention centers including the privately-run facility in Aurora will become more crowded.  

And as of mid-January, about one-fifth of detainees were confirmed to have COVID-19.  

In a statement, ICE regional spokesperson Alethea Smock said there was no overarching detention policy included in the deportation pause as of Jan. 22. Immigrants will continue to be detained or released on a “case-by-case basis.”  

She also noted that the GEO Group Inc.-run facility in north Aurora has housed far fewer immigrants than usual during the pandemic, mimicking local jails and prisons, to reduce viral spread.  

Biden’s slew of federal policy reversals came as some Aurora lawmakers made failed bids to protect undocumented residents from deportations.  

Mayor Mike Coffman broke a tie on the city council Jan. 25 to shoot down a plan to create a legal defense fund for indigent immigrants facing deportation hearings in court. He also broke a tie to kill a plan limiting cooperation between local cops and ICE agents while creating “safe spaces” and sanctuaries from immigration authorities in city buildings.  

Dozens of Aurorans split on the issue, and the nature of immigration in Aurora, exhorted their local lawmakers during the meeting.  

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Sentinel File Photo

Climate, Oil and Gas

Aurora is a long way from Paris, the Keystone XL pipeline and federally-leased oil and gas wells, but Biden moved quickly last week to slash greenhouse gases warming the globe — and the Front Range.  

Numerous studies project the Denver metroplex to continue experiencing record-breaking days of more than 100 degrees unless greenhouse gas emissions are severely cut globally. Amid a devastating fire season, August 2020 was Colorado’s hottest on record, and the state continues to suffer through extreme drought threatening everything from water resources to farms and urban air quality in Aurora.  

Within hours of taking office, Biden quickly moved to reinstate U.S. climate goals that scientists agree can protect the environment from unfurling into the worst-case scenarios.  

World leaders quickly cheered the Biden administration’s move to rejoin the Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord aims to slash fossil fuel production and combustion globally to keep the temperature beneath a 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels.  

Several U.S. hotspots have already warmed above that threshold, including Colorado’s Western Slope. Trump formally pulled the U.S. from the agreement last year.  

In other actions, Biden also revoked the permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and announced a temporary pause on leasing federal lands for oil and gas development.  

It’s a common practice for federal land managers to lease lands for development in western Colorado and surrounding states. Nationally, the practice contributes to the equivalent of almost 550 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.  

Wells in and near Aurora are rarely on federally-owned land. But Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy director for Denver-based WildEarth Guardians, said high concentrations of such wells lay to the north on the Pawnee National Grassland and contribute to local pollution and ozone here.  

Nichols said Biden’s opening signatures on the environment signal a “great message that we can’t promote or be ambivalent about oil and gas production.”   

But he said the jury is still out whether the Biden administration, and Colorado, will lead the deep reforms needed to decarbonize American life.  

On the other hand, Biden’s moves quickly attracted mixed reactions from oil and gas trade groups.  

In a statement, the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute supported reentering the Paris Agreement but said the yanked Keystone XL permit was “a slap in the face to the thousands of union workers who are already a part of this safe and sustainable project.”  

Colorado’s newest congressperson, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Rifle, sponsored a measure last week trying to prevent Biden from pressing ahead with the Paris Accord. Boebert ran on promises to protect the oil and gas industry, often citing U.S. energy independence as a motivator. 

“Compliance with this unconstitutional agreement will also ensure that the U.S. increases dependence on foreign countries for our energy needs — a huge national security risk,” Boebert said in a statement. “The U.S. has the highest regulatory standards in the world and shifting production to hostile nations is not only bad foreign policy, it’s bad environmental policy as these countries don’t operate under the same regulations.” 

Locally, the federal action on climate change will help boost Colorado’s beleaguered effort to slash emissions on its own, said Rep. Dominique Jackson.  

The state lawmaker represents a swath of central Aurora and co-sponsored the 2019 bill setting climate targets in line with the Paris Accord goals.  

“I am absolutely thrilled to death,” Jackson said. “Our climate crisis is harming everyone. It’s impacting people’s health, it’s impacting people’s livelihoods. We had fires. It’s decimating our lands. We have to move immediately.” 

She added that, in Aurora, residents breathe in pollution at concerning rates. That contributes to asthma, other respiratory diseases and even earlier deaths, according to the American Lung Association.  

According to the office of Jared Polis, Colorado has made scant progress on emissions reductions after the 2019 bill become law.  

Environmentalists are largely unified in calling for concrete action, not aspirations, from Biden and Gov. Jared Polis. The Denver Post reported that progressive lawmakers aim to force Polis’ hand with more stringent bills on climate action during the upcoming legislative session.  

Jackson said she has “big plans” of her own to create more “accountability and parameters” on progress, but she would not elaborate before the legislative session begins next month.  

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Protesters leave Aurora City Hall July 25, 2020 as they march for justice in the death of Elijah McClain. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON. Sentinel Colorado

Racial Justice  

Rare for an inaugural address, President Joe Biden issued a strong repudiation of white supremacy and domestic terrorism seen on the rise under Donald Trump. 

In his speech last Wednesday, Biden denounced the “racism, nativism, fear, demonization,” that propelled the assault on Capitol Hill by an overwhelmingly white mob of Trump supporters who carried symbols of hate, including the Confederate battle flag. 

“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” Biden said in the nearly 23-minute-long speech promising to heal a divided nation. “A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” 

Biden’s words follow months of protests and civil unrest over police brutality against Black Americans, as well as a broader reckoning on the systemic and institutional racism that has plagued nonwhite Americans for generations. Aurora was the epicenter of multiple protests this summer as national outcry mushroomed over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in August 2019. 

“To be perfectly clear, it was incredibly powerful,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a national racial justice organization, told The Associated Press. “We shouldn’t underestimate the cultural change that had to take place, in order for that to happen on one of the biggest political stages in the world.” 

“I think it’s just really important that, as a result of our movement, racial justice became a majoritarian issue this summer,” Robinson added. “Now the work begins in translating that rhetorical issue into a governing issue.” 

Biden delivered his inaugural address on the very platform that the insurrectionist mob scaled two weeks ago to breach the Capitol building, vandalizing federal property and taking selfies on the Senate floor. The riot left at least five people dead, including a Capitol police officer. 

Voter suppression, along with other forms of systemic racism, are top of mind for civil rights groups and supporters of Black Lives Matter, which last year became the largest protest movement in U.S. history. 

“To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words,” Biden said in his speech. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy. Unity.” 

Biden also highlighted the historic nature of the swearing in of Harris, the first woman and first Black and South Asian person to hold that office. 

“It is exciting to see a Black woman become vice president, and yet we must hold her and President Biden accountable to ensure Black liberation and the eradication of white supremacy,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder and executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. 

“We must heal from anti-Black racism and the heavy health and economic impacts from COVID-19,” Cullors said in a statement. “Then, we can focus on thriving Black lives through investments in health, education, housing, and environmental justice.” 

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP, also lauded Harris’ status as an alumnus of Howard University, which is historically Black.  

“We always hear what I consider to be some negative thoughts about historically Black colleges and universities, but here our vice president is a graduate of Howard University,” Montgomery said. “ … You’re beginning to see you can go to a historically Black institution and come out and be VP.” 

Biden began addressing some of these issues in a series of executive orders signed after the inauguration. 

They order federal agencies to prioritize racial equity and review policies that reinforce systemic racism, which the BLM foundation said mirrors a proposal contained in the BREATHE Act, proposed legislation championed by the foundation and the Movement for Black Lives. It calls for sweeping federal reforms, including overhauling police, the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. 

Montgomery offered tepid optimism regarding Biden’s early executive actions and early cabinet appointments. 

“I am glad to see that the administration is correcting what I consider to be some of the exclusionary practices that were put in place by the previous administration,” he said. “… The question is will the policy that comes from these individuals (in the cabinet) go along with the diversity that’s represented? Just because you have diversity, that doesn’t mean the policy will reflect it. But I’m pretty optimistic that some good things will come out of this administration.”  

Jodeh echoed the sentiment, saying she hopes the Biden administration recognizes the urgency of the moment.   

“This is our time to really ensure that the people we elected truly enforce policies that reflect that Black lives matter,” she said. 

Colorado emerged as an epicenter of fast-acting police reform following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring. The legislature rapidly passed an omnibus reform measure that banned certain controversial arrest maneuvers, increased data tracking for officers found to have engaged in misconduct and introduced mechanisms to hold officers financially liable if they’re found to have broken the law while on duty.  

Changes to policing in Aurora remain ongoing, with several external and internal audits of the apartment slowly winding forward. McClain’s death has prompted a whirlwind of investigations into Aurora police, including looks from the U.S. Department of Justice and a query from the state attorney general’s office looking at potential patterns and practices of unconstitutional practices. A citizen panel that could pave the way for a new, police-centric independent review entity in the city is expected to bring a series of recommendations to city council in the coming months.  

In the fall, Chief Vanessa Wilson unveiled a multi-step plan focused on mending trust between local officers and the residents they’re sworn to serve.  

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

Students wearing facemasks sit socailly distanced in a classroom at East Village Community Elementary School, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo by Jeremy Chavez/Cherry Creek Schools

Education  

Biden named reopening most K-12 schools as a priority for his first 100 days in office, something that will be an uphill battle as districts continue struggling to balance the desires of students, parents and teachers. While families are fed up with another semester of online learning, many teachers have expressed concerns about returning to school before being vaccinated.

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order to support the reopening of schools and early childhood centers. The order included directions to the Secretary of Education and Secretary of Health and Human Services to put together evidence-based guidance for school reopening and to create a report assessing the impacts that the pandemic has had on students. The White House’s proposed COVID-19 stimulus package includes $130 million for schools, according to reporting from the New York Times.

The Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools restarted in person learning this semester in a hybrid model, though local teachers have expressed frustration that they will not be able to receive the vaccine until March or April. A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 25 found that with mask wearing and cohorting in place, COVID-19 transmission in K-12 schools appears to be low.

Community college leaders hope that Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will work to shore up support for two year institutions, something that was not a priority for Trump education secretary Betsy Devos.

They believe the next First Lady, who will continue to teach English at Northern Virginia Community College, will be a persistent ally, advocate, and spokeswoman over the next four years for two-year colleges, which enroll nearly half of the nation’s undergraduate students and are typically more diverse and have an older average population than do four-year institutions. They also see her insight as especially crucial as schools struggle with enrollment declines and budget woes during the pandemic.

“She will be able to help people get a better understanding of who we educate and why, and the difference that makes in our economy,” said Joe Garcia, Colorado Community College System chancellor. “That is what I’m really excited about, almost regardless of how much money they can put into our colleges.”

Community College of Aurora President Betsy Oudenhoven said that the Biden administration’s support of the DACA program will be a boon to the college’s estimated hundreds of undocumented students. 

On top of promising policy initiatives, Oudenhoven said that makeup of the Biden-Harris ticket is meaningful for community college students. It’s the first presidential ticket since 1984 where neither candidate has an Ivy League degree, and the very first to have a graduate of a historically Black college.

Over 60% of CCA students are people of color and over 60% are first generation. It also serves a large immigrant and refugee population.

“It is so powerful for my students to see someone like Kamala Harris who is a person of color, a daughter of immigrants, a graduate of an HBCU, in the vice presidency,” Oudenhoven said. “No matter your politics, it’s historic. But for my students they see themselves in her.”

— CARINA JULIG, Staff Writer

Democratic Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, right, puts on a mask that was given to him by M Mart owner Augustine Lee while on the campaign trail Sept. 9, 2020, in Aurora, CO. Hickenlooper visited small businesses in the Havana Business Improvement District.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

COVID-19 Relief  

Through the burst of executive orders on his first formal day in office, President Joe Biden served notice that America’s war on COVID-19 is under new command, promising an anxious nation progress to reduce infections and lift the siege it has endured for nearly a year.

“We’re going to face setbacks,” he said, brushing off a reporter’s question on whether his goal of 100 million coronavirus shots in 100 days should be more ambitious, a point pressed by some public health experts. 

In Colorado and other states leaders are eager to receive more inoculations. Just this week Gov. Jared Polis renewed his plea for additional supplies. 

Currently the state gets word of how many vials they’ll receive a few days in advance. Polis told reporters he’d like to see that advisory a couple weeks in advance. Colorado has received a total of 376,920 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and 217,520 second doses as of Jan. 24.

“It’s well known by now that the Trump administration failed Americans in many aspects of the COVID vaccine rollout and I continue to urge our federal partners and the new Biden administration in Washington to ramp up vaccine distribution right away,” Polis said this week in a statement. “Colorado is ready to immediately use three to four times as many vaccines as we are currently getting each week right away. The sooner Colorado gets more vaccines, the quicker we can get them into arms, and the faster we can help our small businesses and economy build back stronger. We’re ready and welcome renewed federal assistance to get the job done.” 

The state should complete vaccinating older Coloradans, those over the age of 70, by March.  

Also on the horizon is an aid package. Newly-elected Sen. John Hickenlooper has been selected for a 16-member task force aimed at solidifying negotiations.  

“Our priorities include producing more vaccines and improving distribution, and we must also support those whose lives have been turned upside down by the virus. We need to focus on our nation’s small businesses — especially restaurants and other service industries — and I’ll fight to make sure Colorado gets its fair share of resources,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Today we had a productive discussion about achieving these goals, with much agreement on both sides of the aisle.” 

Hickenlooper told the Colorado Sun earlier this week his role as Colorado’s former governor, having been forced to work across the aisle to get state business done, puts him in a good place for negotiating the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

The new president has vowed to take far more aggressive measures to contain the virus than his predecessor, starting with stringent adherence to public health guidance. A key difference is that under Biden, the federal government is assuming full responsibility for the COVID response. And instead of delegating major tasks to states, he is offering to help them with technical backup and federal money.

Adding to the challenges are virus mutations, particularly one that has emerged in South Africa, that may make vaccines somewhat less effective. Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters at the White House briefing that “we are paying very close attention to it.” Biden’s plan includes an expansion of research capabilities to map out the genetic structure of new variants.

Biden has also implemented a mask order for travel, which applies to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation. Travelers from abroad must furnish a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the U.S. and must quarantine upon arrival. Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.

Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights. The action was applauded by airline unions and supported by a major industry trade group.

It marks a sharp break with the culture of President Donald Trump’s administration, under which masks were optional, and Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters. Science has shown that masks, properly worn, cut down on coronavirus transmission.

Biden said his administration’s coronavirus decisions would be based on science, not politics.

As part of his strategy, Biden ordered establishment of a Health Equity Task Force to ensure that minority and underserved communities are not left out of the government’s response. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have borne a heavy burden of death and disease from the virus. Surveys have shown vaccine hesitancy is higher among African Americans, a problem the administration plans to address through an education campaign. 

— THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report

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