New Colorado bill prohibits using an immigrant’s status as extortion

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It’s not every day you read about legislation that passes with unanimous, bipartisan support. But, on Monday, March 1, the Colorado House of Representatives passed — 64 to 0 — House Bill 21-1057, which expands current extortion law to include threatening immigrants with reporting their status to law enforcement to cover up a crime. 

“It is a really positive step forward in protecting immigrants in our community because now we’ll be able to charge criminal offenses when someone is being threatened with immigration consequences,” says Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill. “We’ve seen actual cases where that gap, those defects in the statute are an issue for us.” 

In 2006, Colorado criminalized prospective extortion of immigrants, making it illegal to use someone’s immigration status as a way to illicit money or anything of value from them. The new law adds to the definition of extortion the use of someone’s immigration status in an attempt to prevent them from doing something within their legal rights, namely reporting a crime like withholding wages, child abuse, sex trafficking or domestic abuse. 

“We have seen over the years that undocumented immigrants are threatened with reporting to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they don’t perform free overtime or expand the work that they’re doing to things that maybe they wouldn’t want to do, or just plain old working without being paid. So, I think this is a really important expansion in those definitions,” says Laurel Herndon, executive director and managing attorney at the Immigrant Legal Center of Boulder County. 

Dougherty, too, has plenty of examples of immigration status being used to exploit workers. In a recent Boulder County case, a general contractor withheld wages from five subcontractors, threatening to report them to ICE when they demanded the money. “We had difficulty charging it as an extortion since it was a threat to keep money already given as opposed to inducing someone to give money in the future,” Dougherty says. 

He’s also seen cases where domestic violence abusers have threatened to report their victim’s immigration status to authorities, threatening deportation and separation from children. In another example, Dougherty prosecuted a case years ago where a brother was in the country legally, but his two sisters were undocumented. Over several years, he sexually assaulted both of his sisters, who lived with him, constantly threatening to report them to ICE if they ever reported the abuse. 

“That threat would not be covered by the current extortion statute. So we’d only be able to prosecute the sexual offense, not the threat,” he says. “But when you think about the impact of this threat, to me, that’s what kept them there.” 

Anne Tapp, executive director of Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) Boulder, says about 75% of undocumented survivors the organization works with haven’t contacted law enforcement because their abuser has threatened to disclose their status to ICE. 

“The abuser’s threat to report an undocumented survivor to law enforcement is one of the primary reasons that a survivor doesn’t call the police and may even be reluctant to reach out to other community support systems,” she says. “And it’s not an idle threat.”

Recently, Tapp says, SPAN worked with a survivor whose abuser did report her to ICE and she was detained. 

“Immigrants at any point of documentation fear the potential of having their status in the community threatened, and oftentimes people are told things by an abuser or an employer … that may not even be true,” she adds. “Even if they have permission to work in the community, if their employer or their abuser tells them that actually if they’re reported to the police, that right will be taken away, they may believe them.”

Sarah Shikes, executive director of Denver’s Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores (El Centro), which supports day laborers and domestic workers through its day center, agrees. She says predatory employers have even threatened El Centro staff, despite the fact the organization keeps no record of immigration status for those they serve. 

“For day laborers and domestic workers there’s so many barriers and they are definitely vulnerable to all sorts of different types of exploitation,” she says. “There’s a fear amongst immigrants, Latinos, low-wage workers, people of color who are challenged in so many ways in accessing jobs.”

Now that the bill has passed the House, it heads to the Senate, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cooke, former sheriff of Weld County, where it’s expected to pass without much, if any, dissent. 

“Extortion is wrong no matter who it is being applied against,” Cooke says. “We need to protect people from crimes. You can’t commit other crimes against illegal immigrants, so we need to make sure this one is added in there.” 

It’s a bill about public safety, as much as anything else, says Rep. Dylan Roberts, who sponsored the bill in the House and is also a deputy district attorney for Eagle County. The law is supported by all 22 Colorado district attorneys, Republicans and Democrats alike. 

“If we, as a society, value public safety and want to make sure that crime and domestic violence is prosecuted, then we need to ensure that victims never fear consequences because they’re reporting something bad that happened to them,” he says. “A victim is a victim regardless of their immigration status.” 

Roberts says he expects the bill will be on Gov. Polis’ desk and signed into law by the end of March. But it could still take some time to educate communities across the state how it could protect them. And, it’ll take some successful prosecutions under the expanded law to give concrete examples to the community and public at large. The penalty carries the possibility of 2-6 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.

“This is a great step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more that we need to do to support immigrants in the community,” Tapp says.  

There are several other bills making their way through the legislative process this year that could do just that. One would allow roll back restrictions prohibiting undocumented immigrants from licensed jobs like electricians, lawyers, day care workers and dental hygienists. Another would reverse a ban on jurisdictions providing public benefits to those without legal status. 

“It’s time to get beyond the prevention of threats to immigrants and actually move into recognizing immigrants as full community members, which we in Boulder County have long declared,” Herndon says. “We want people to have affirmative opportunities, not just protections against the worst possible treatment.”  

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