Undocumented immigrants are already afraid of law enforcement, fearing that any contact with police could lead to their deportation. As a result, immigrant advocates say, anything that inflames that fear will lead to fewer crimes being reported from that community.
The new Secure Communities program that Ritter adopted for Colorado in a Jan. 4 executive order does just that, those advocates say, because it serves as a “dragnet” that requires the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail to be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to check immigration status.
But Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle says Secure Communities takes the guesswork out of deciding whether to send an arrestee’s fingerprints to ICE, and the program may just deflate the effort to adopt a law in Colorado similar to Arizona Senate Bill 1070.
Currently, he says, after arresting someone, his deputies have to make a judgment call on whether their prints should be sent to ICE. If they have “reasonable belief ” that an arrestee is an undocumented immigrant, they are required to report him or her to ICE.
Under Secure Communities, which has been implemented in 35 other states and is expected to be nationwide by 2013, all fingerprints of those booked into jail are submitted to ICE. Pelle says that puts all suspects on an even playing field and, if anything, reduces the chances of racial profiling by local law enforcement. After all, the current decisions on whether to report arrestees to ICE are based on things like language skills, which is not an ideal situation.
If Colorado were to adopt Senate Bill 54, which was patterned after Arizona’s legislation and introduced into the Colorado Senate on Jan. 19, it would authorize police to be more proactive in their approach, arresting people whom they suspect of being in the country illegally.
Pelle says he and most sheriffs around the state oppose that approach, in part because it effectively converts them into immigration agents and gives them additional duties and responsibilities currently held by federal officers.
He says opponents of the Arizona-type legislation could use Secure Communities to argue that SB 54 is not just extreme, but unnecessary, given Ritter’s recent action.
Despite undocumented immigrants’ fear of having any contact with police, Pelle says, they are only in danger of being reported to ICE if they are arrested. While police may ask witnesses of crimes for identification, the failure to produce an ID card is not an offense for which someone can be deported. While a valid driver’s license is required to drive a car, deputies are not submitting suspects’ fingerprints to ICE after routine traffic stops, Pelle says. Suspected illegal immigrants are reported only when they are arrested and booked into jail.
“It’s not our intent to alienate the public or cause them to fear reporting a crime,” he says. “That’s the last thing we want. The best advice is, if you don’t want to get reported to ICE, don’t commit a crime.”
Currently, the decision on whether to report a suspected undocumented immigrant to ICE can be made easier with one question.
“First we ask them where they were born,” Pelle says of the booking process. If suspects list another country, the decision to submit fingerprints to ICE is automatic. But if they say the United States, the decision becomes subjective. If a suspect has no identification and doesn’t speak any English, he says, he or she will likely be reported. He adds, however, that there are suspects who speak perfect English and who have an ID card and would not be reported to ICE if they did not admit being born in another country.
Pelle explains that about 10,000 people are booked into the Boulder County Jail each year, and deputies only report about 1,000 of those to ICE. Out of that 1,000, he says, ICE puts “detainers” on between 100 to 200, giving an ICE agent the opportunity to inter view those suspected of being in the country illegally.
In the case of a “detainer,” as a courtesy to ICE the sheriff ’s office will keep a suspect in jail up to 48 additional hours past the point they are due to be released (after they post bond, for instance, or any charges are settled).
But Pelle says his officers do not enforce federal immigration law, they are not experts on determining citizenship, and the county jail is not a federally licensed facility for ICE. He says he doesn’t want it to be; it is already full most days.
“We bump up against maximum capacity constantly,” he says.
Having an Arizona-type law “changes the ball game,” Pelle explains, because any contact with someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant — even routine traffic stops or in interviewing witnesses of a crime — could result in an arrest. It would also likely mean that local law enforcement would have to go through additional training.
“We don’t want to be in the position of being ICE agents,” he says, adding that rounding up hundreds of illegal immigrants would prove costly. “It could bankrupt sheriff ’s offices and county governments.”
Pelle says that at a recent meeting of the County Sheriffs of Colorado group, sheriffs from around the state expressed concerns about the prospect of an Arizona-type immigration law, not just because the measure has prompted a lawsuit and cost that state a lot of money, but because it would hamper crime reporting.
“That does destroy any trust we have, particularly with the Hispanic community,” Pelle says. “They won’t report crimes. They could be victimized by unscrupulous employers, victimized sexually.”
Don Christensen, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, says his group would oppose any legislation making immigration enforcement mandatory.
“I don’t want an officer to have to divert from a higher-level incident to handle an immigration issue,” he says.
The language of SB 54 is phrased as conditions under which an officer “may” arrest a person.
Hans Meyer, policy director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, told Boulder Weekly that Secure Communities is just as flawed as SB 54. Asked which he would prefer if he had to choose one, he replied, “Neither.”
He says his group and many others have called for changes to Ritter’s version of Secure Communities to make it less extreme and more consistent with the model being implemented nationwide. For instance, Meyer says, if the intent of the program is to catch those convicted of dangerous crimes, it should be narrowly tailored to capture just those criminals, not a wide “dragnet” that could mistakenly ensnare many victims of crimes as well.
CIRC asserts that fingerprints should be sent to ICE at the time of conviction, not at the time of arrest, and that the program should be reserved only for those “convicted of serious criminal offenses,” as ICE says in its stated goals for the program.
The group is calling on new Gov. John Hickenlooper to rescind Ritter’s memorandum of agreement with ICE and replace it with one that has several amendments, including a clause stipulating that only subjects convicted of Level 1 offenses will be screened by ICE as part of Secure Communities. (Level 1 offenses include felonies, two or more class 1 misdemeanors and other crimes defined as “aggravated felonies” by the Immigration and Nationality Act, according to CIRC.)
CIRC also claims that there is not enough protection for victims of domestic violence. The group points out that an existing 2006 law requires police to report arrestees they suspect of being illegal immigrants carries an exception for domestic violence. Suspects in domestic violence cases may be reported to ICE at the point of conviction, not at the point of arrest, in part because sometimes multiple people — including the victim — are arrested after domestic disputes. CIRC has called on Hickenlooper to create the same exception for Secure Communities.
In a press release issued the same day as Ritter’s executive order, CIRC quoted an undocumented domestic abuse survivor identified only as “Jazmin” as saying, “With a law like Secure Communities in place, I won’t call the police anymore — not just for a crime against me, but for a crime against anyone. When I was a victim, I was more scared of the police than the person that I was reporting.”
CIRC has also asked for enhanced reporting from ICE on how the data is being used, which to a debatable degree was included in Ritter’s version, and a clear process allowing jurisdictions to opt out of Secure Communities if they wish.
Meyer cautions that the program could be used by anti-immigration police officers to round up undocumented immigrants through trumped-up, minor charges like exceeding curfew.
“If you want a dragnet deportation program, this is it,” Meyer says. “But don’t call it a focused Secure Communities initiative. Call it a round-up.”
The Boulder County Commissioners are among the many groups that have sent letters protesting Ritter’s executive order, airing concerns similar to those raised by CIRC.
But Pelle is sticking to his guns in his support for Secure Communities. While his view on the issue differs from the stance of the county commissioners, who set his budget, he has explained his position to them and they’re not pressuring him to change his tune.
Pelle says he doesn’t think the increase in the number of fingerprints sent to ICE will result in an increase in deportations, simply because of ICE’s limited resources.
As for CIRC’s positions on domestic violence cases and screening at the time of conviction instead of arrest, he says that about 90 percent of offenders are no longer in custody at the time of their conviction, in most cases because they are out on bond. Law enforcement agencies, which use different computer database systems, would have to set up a separate tracking system just for suspects to have their fingerprints sent to ICE at the time of conviction rather than the time of arrest.
In addition, he says, if the screening were done only for serious crimes, it would allow those arrested for minor offenses to remain under the radar even if they were repeat ICE offenders.
“It sounds like a simple issue, but it’s not,” Pelle says, adding that his department doesn’t even wait until conviction to report domestic violence suspects to ICE currently, because the 2006 law doesn’t preclude them from doing so, it just gives them the option of waiting until conviction.
“They’re asking for a lot based on good, moral and ethical reasoning, which isn’t flawed, but the way these data systems work, they’re asking for something really complicated,” Pelle says.