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Immigrant rights groups elated as Colorado bars local jails from working with ICE on detention

June 16, 2023, 9:41 am
State Rep. Naquetta Ricks (photo by Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline).

Local law enforcement in Colorado can no longer work with federal authorities to detain people on civil immigration violations, now that Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill prohibiting a practice that immigrant rights groups said left immigrant communities to stay in the shadows for fear of detention. 

Advocates and state officials say the law ensures Colorado continues to be a welcoming state for immigrants. 

The legislation, House Bill 23-1100, which Polis signed June 8, puts an end to intergovernmental service agreements that allow local law enforcement to rent bed space in their jails to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for civil immigration violation enforcement, effective Jan. 1, 2024. There are currently two such agreements in the state, one in Teller County and one in Moffat County. 

The two counties’ sheriff’s offices detain individuals suspected of immigration violations, both civil and criminal, at their jails if there is a lack of bed space at detention centers while the detainees await their immigration court date. The legislation ends the agreement pertaining to civil violations.

Nayda Benitez, director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the legislation is a culmination of years of advocacy against local law enforcement partnering with ICE.  

“This is a huge step forward in making sure that folks feel welcome and feel safe and maybe more likely to contact law enforcement or build relationships with law enforcement knowing that they’re not going to be renting bed space to ICE,” Benitez said. 

For some immigrant rights advocates, the issue is about ensuring trust between local authorities and immigrants in Colorado so they can feel safe in their communities. State Rep. Naquetta Ricks attends an event hosted by Colorado’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus to provide a 2023 legislative preview at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Jan. 25, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

State Rep. Naquetta Ricks, a sponsor of the bill, said ensuring residents are not detained for civil immigration issues is essential to fostering that trust between communities and local law enforcement. 

Ricks, an immigrant from Liberia, said the law will also stop local law enforcement from citing people on suspicion that they are undocumented, which she said has left many immigrant communities forced to “stay in the shadows.”

“There was like just a general fear that if (immigrants) were to be stopped by the police in certain places like Teller County they could be detained because of a routine traffic stop, where if I were stopped or you were stopped, that would be a little ticket or a civil citation,” Ricks said.

Especially during the Trump administration, Ricks said, immigrant communities felt as though they had to hide from law enforcement and avoid local, state or federal authorities for fear of being detained.

She said this is true even in times of crisis. 

“When things bad happened in the community, a woman could be raped or crime could occur and they stayed in the shadows because they did not want to be picked up,” Ricks said. 

She said the bill got support from many law enforcement agencies across the state for this reason.

More beds, more detentions

Before the bill was passed, both the Colorado House and Senate held hearings to discuss the issue. In his testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell argued that the agreement between Teller and ICE helps to keep those detained in better conditions than private detention centers would, and it keeps them closer to their families.

Without these agreements, he said, those who are detained would be transferred to private detention centers or to other states due to lack of space. 

“If they go to these private facilities, we can’t guarantee how that’s going to be dealt with,” Mikesell said in the hearing.

The only private federal detention center in the state is in Aurora and is run by the GEO Group, a private prison corporation. Mikesell said private detention centers do not have the oversight that county jails do. 

HB-1100 does not affect the private Aurora detention center, but it does prohibit local governments from entering a contract with private detention centers. 

Teller County commissioners sent a letter to the governor requesting a veto on the bill for these reasons, according to a county spokesperson. 

“This is the only way that the state of Colorado has any (assurance) that we’re treating these folks with respect and dignity,” Teller County Commissioner Dan Williams said in the hearing. 

But, the issue for advocates and immigrant communities is the act of detaining individuals for a civil offense, which Annie Kurtz, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said local enforcement and the state should have no part in. 

Kurtz said the only justification for civil immigration detention is to secure the individual’s appearance at their immigration court date. 

“We know that the entire model is penal in nature and people were being held for suspected civil immigration violations in the same conditions as people suspected of committing crimes in jails,” Kurtz said. 

Benitez told Colorado Newsline that the availability of more beds typically means more detentions.

“Immigrants are more likely to be arrested and detained by ICE in counties with more detention beds,” Benitez said. “And by ICE arresting someone, they are effectively ripping them apart from their family, ripping that individual from their family causing harm to Colorado children’s schools, neighborhoods and even the labor market.” 

CIRC is pushing for alternative community-based solutions to detainment for individuals awaiting immigration proceedings, Benitez said.

“We know there exists alternatives to detention where people can fight their immigration cases from home without being separated from their families and with access to resources that they need in order to navigate the process,” Benitez said. 

The ACLU and Teller County Sheriff’s Office are engaged in a lawsuit regarding a different agreement the sheriff has with ICE, a 287(g) agreement. Under the agreement, the sheriff sent officers to be trained by ICE to conduct immigration enforcement arrests.  

A 2019 Colorado law prohibits state law enforcement from detaining individuals on the basis of ICE warrants without a judge’s signature. The case decides whether the 287(g) agreement is lawful. A Teller County District Court judge ruled in favor of Mikesell, who argued the agreement and the authority his officers claim are lawful because, with ICE training, the officers are acting as de facto federal agents. 

The ACLU appealed the ruling, and the case is currently under review by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The ACLU and Mikesell declined to comment on the ongoing case and how the new legislation impacts it. 

The passage of the legislation prohibiting IGSAs is at least is a relief for immigration groups, Benitez said. She and Ricks said it is evidence of Colorado being a welcoming state to immigrants. 

“I think it is a testament to the power of the immigrant rights movement in Colorado,” Benitez said.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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