Local police oppose state immigration bill
SUMMIT COUNTY – A Denver legislator is pushing a bill that would give local police officers the power to enforce federal immigration law. But that’s a responsibility some of Summit’s top cops don’t want.
Furthermore, the bills police say would have helped them are the ones the Legislature already has killed.
The State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee is debating House Bill 1448 this week. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Lee, R-Littleton, would give state and local law enforcement agents the power to act on federal immigration law. The bill requires officers to detain a person he or she believes is in the state despite a deportation order and also aligns legal alien’s driver’s license expiration date with the expiration of their visa.
Lee offered the bill as a way for Colorado to contribute to the war on terrorism. The state, he said, should assist the already overburdened and underfunded Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agency. Silverthorne Police Chief John Patterson sees it differently.
“From my perspective, we have to provide police service to an entire community,” Patterson said. “By the last census, we’re 23 percent Latino. If our police are being agents of the INS, those people aren’t going to call us.”
Patterson said he views immigration violations as civil matters, as opposed to criminal. He said he believes most of the immigrants in Silverthorne are hard-working, diligent people. And, Patterson said unless violence is involved, or unless a chronic crime such as writing bad checks is involved, his officers don’t contact the INS when the individual is in the U.S. illegally.
“If they need police help, they need to feel confident we’ll help them and not report them,” Patterson said of the immigrant population. “Besides, the INS would be even more swamped than they are now.”
Dillon Police Chief Gary Cline echoed Patterson’s statements. Cline added that years of work reaching out to the Hispanic and African immigrants in Dillon would “go down the tubes” if the newcomers learned police were allowed to make immigration arrests. He said his officers respond frequently to alcohol-related domestic violence incidents and he worries about victims’ willingness to report the crimes if the proposed bill is enacted.
Emergency responders in Summit County report working with the INS can be hit-or-miss. Summit County Communications trainer Chris Benson said police requests to contact INS agents are filled only about 50 percent of the time. Benson said agents always seem to have their hands full and officers end up on a waiting list.
Colorado state troopers said INS agents like to have large numbers of people in a bust, but even then there’s no guarantee. This leads to a “why bother?” attitude from many officers: A truck-load of 15 undocumented workers was discovered at Vail Pass in February; troopers were prepared to drop them off in Frisco or Copper Mountain, but after pleading from the Copper Mountain bus driver who picked up the illegals, troopers contacted INS agents who happened to be available.
In other cases, the agents show up right away. In February, Frisco police arrested a woman for shoplifting. The woman, six months pregnant, was deported a week later.
“We don’t have enough patrol cars to shuttle all these people,” said State Patrol Cpl. Lawrence Oletski. “But the INS is just like every other law enforcement agency – they’re pushed to the limits of their resources. They’ll respond, but they want numbers. If there aren’t numbers, they tell us just to get the people’s names. You factor in the bad weather here in the winter, and the situation becomes even more complicated.”
According to Summit County Sheriff Joe Morales, a bill that would have provided law enforcement with a more valuable tool was killed in committee in March. State Sen. Tom Tupa, D-Boulder, proposed allowing illegal aliens to obtain identification and driver’s licenses through the state’s department of motor vehicles. Instead, the Legislature passed (and Gov. Bill Owens signed) Senate Bill 112 into law, requiring state offices to ask for proof of legal residency before issuing identification documents.
Morales said Senate Bill 65 would have been “a huge tool,” and the struggles of police and legislators to address the immigration issue show how great a dilemma it is. Morales said he sees himself as an “immigration realist” – immigrants are a necessity for the sustainability and prosperity of Summit’s and the state’s economies.
A regional INS spokesperson was not available for comment on the bill.
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