Car accident spirals into immigration inquisition

(Photo/Eric Brandt, Flickr)

(Photo/Eric Brandt, Flickr)

Gov. Bill Ritter has ordered dozens of local police, state patrol and federal immigration officials to look for gaps in immigration enforcement following three tragic deaths allegedly caused by an undocumented driver. But immigrant rights groups fear the incident could give birth to more draconian laws in a state that already has some of the strictest immigration statutes in the nation.

No one is really sure how Francis Hernandez, an immigrant from Guatemala without valid identification, was able to continue driving on state roads after being arrested no less than 16 times for mostly misdemeanor offenses, but his record came to light when Hernandez was allegedly involved in a car accident that killed three Aurora residents, one of them a 3-year-old boy.

Shortly after news broke about the accident, Ritter announced that he would command officials at the state Department of Public Safety to create a task force to examine what problems are preventing local and federal police forces from better sharing information about suspected undocumented immigrants.

The working group has not officially convened yet, but department spokesman Lance Clem expects the task force to be composed of 20-50 individuals, mostly from law enforcement organizations, including the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency responsible for workplace raids.

“They’re really looking more at communications and how information is exchanged among law enforcement agencies,” said Clem, who noted that the working group is looking for a suitable place to hold meetings and that a report on the findings would be due by the end of the year.

News of the fledgling task force has left immigrant rights advocates both hopeful and cautious.

“We welcome the opportunity to discuss the state’s immigration laws,” said Julien Ross with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a group composed of dozens of social justice organizations across the state. “We just don’t want to see the actions of one individual used to justify bad laws for a broken system that can only be really fixed with federal comprehensive immigration reform.”

Hernandez faces charges of vehicular homicide. His attorney denies that he was the cause of the accident.

State audit moves forward

Along with the governor’s working group, three lawmakers from Aurora want a state audit to examine how law enforcement agencies communicate about traffic violations and immigration offenses.

Democratic Rep. Morgan Carroll was one of the legislators who called for the audit and says it would be necessary regardless of Hernandez’s immigration status.

While Carroll says Ritter’s task force is a good start, she would rather see the state legislature’s audit committee hire an independent investigator. That would avert the political interference that could come from any agency trying to avoid embarrassment. “It’s all concerned about how you look. No one wants to be embarrassed,” Carroll said.

“What a state auditor can do is take a look at some of the state agencies and see if there is a role for the state to better communicate to the issues that deal with crime overall,” said Carroll. “It’s not the first time in history that someone has repeatedly escaped detention through the system through use of aliases.”

Local police in Colorado do not have the power to arrest an individual simply because he or she is undocumented. That’s the federal government’s job, which contributes to confusion over how cops report those without identification to immigration enforcement officials.

A special state patrol unit consisting of two dozen members specifically focuses on working immigration with traffic enforcement laws.

“We have a special team ready to identify and prosecute people who are in the country illegally if they have committed other crimes,” Clem said. “They are nationally deputized to prosecute federally as well as to state statutes with human trafficking and human smuggling.” But local police cannot detain an undocumented immigrant unless he or she is suspected of violating state statues or if the federal government requests a hold.

On Tuesday the legislature’s audit committee requested that an investigator look into possible areas of enforcement that a state audit would examine. The recommendations are due by the first week of November.

When tough laws go wrong

Colorado is already home to some of the toughest immigration laws in the nation, largely because of a special legislative session that was called to address undocumented immigration in the summer of 2006 by former-Republican Gov. Bill Owens and Democratic leadership at the legislature.

The result of the emergency session was a package of new laws which have since been criticized for evicting legal residents, contributing to racial profiling of Latinos and creating fear in immigrant communities.

“We always need to be monitoring intended consequences and unintended consequences of new legislation,” said Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer in response to concerns that the new task force may end up creating more problems than solutions on immigration enforcement.

Dreyer admits that there have been problems with the state’s immigration legislation in the business community as well, saying, “There is some concern on the part of business leaders in the hospitality, tourist, construction and agricultural sectors that they are having a difficult time attracting legal documented workers to meet their work-force needs.”

The new immigration laws in Colorado have encouraged an unknown number of migrant workers to flee the state.

After various crops were left to spoil in the harvest season following the special session, farmers in Colorado partnered with the state’s Department of Corrections to pay inmates 60 cents a day to pick crops in the fields.

Instead of focusing on new laws, Carroll says she wants more factual information from the audit to avoid any unintended consequences from rushed legislation.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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