Anti-immigrant groups back vehicle impound ballot initiative

Denver’s ballot initiative 100 has roots in several of Colorado’s most active anti-immigrant movements. The initiative, which voters will decide in Tuesday’s primary election, seeks to penalize people driving without licenses by mandating that police impound their vehicles. And though the proposal’s organizers say that they mean to target all unlicensed drivers, the initiative has the strong support of anti-immigrant groups like the Colorado chapter of the Minutemen, a national organization that has been linked to hate groups.

Daniel Hayes, the treasurer for Future Denver, which is bringing the initiative forward, says that the proposal was the brainchild of Waldo Benavidez. The one-time city council and state house candidate who died of heart failure in February was very vocal in the anti-immigrant movement. He served as co-chair of Defend Colorado Now, an anti-immigrant group active in the 2006 election. According to Hayes, Benavidez was fed up with what he saw as a lack of accountability for undocumented people driving without licenses. 

"He said the courts were backed up with people that were stopped for driving without a license," Hayes says of Benavidez. "[Police] are not able to ask them whether they are here illegally or not. So often [the police] give them a ticket for whatever they did wrong. These people go in and pay the ticket and get back in their car and drive away."

Benavidez reached out to Stan Weekes, spokesman for the anti-immigrant Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, about petitioning for a ballot initiative in Denver that would address undocumented drivers. Weekes connected him with Hayes, a politically active Arvada resident.

As it stands today, the law would mandate drivers whose vehicles are impounded to submit a $2,500 bond, which they would forfeit if a person without a license is caught driving the car within a year. Drivers would also have to pay an unrefundable $100 to the city to help pay for space for impound lots. The text of the initiative specifically mentions undocumented immigrants, saying "unlicensed drivers including illegal aliens are not eligible for auto insurance and pose a significant danger to the people of the City and County of Denver when driving and must be prohibited from doing so in every way possible."

When Benavidez died, Hayes took up the mantle for the proposal, saying that Benavidez’s passion influenced him. Though Weekes is not officially part of the effort, he serves in an advisory role. Hayes has not been particularly active in anti-immigrant movements in the past. The 61-year-old self-employed real estate broker has instead focused his efforts on curbing growth in Colorado. Hayes introduced a half-dozen statewide initiatives for the general election regarding water use and construction, but none of them made it to the ballot. He believes that immigration is bad for the environment and says that all of his initiatives are interconnected.

"Illegal aliens do bother me because they come across the border; they affect our supply and demand. They overrun our schools. They do everything that I am against. They are impacting us," he says. "I don’t see how any good Democrat can support illegal immigration and call themselves an environmentalist. One of the things we need to do is start controlling population."

Hayes reached out to some of the state’s most powerful anti-immigrant groups to support Initiative 100. He says that members of the Colorado Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a branch of the national border vigilante group, circulated petitions for him and collected thousands of signatures. And one female member of the Minutemen donated $500 to the cause. The Minutemen have come under fire in recent years for the group’s ties to various hate organizations. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Minutemen have been endorsed by the Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a tolerance education organization, says that the Minutemen’s activities resemble the Ku Klux Klan’s staking out of the Arizona border in the late 1970s.  

Hayes says he doesn’t believe those reports, saying the Minutemen "have given water to illegals on the border. There has been no instance that anybody can show that they have operated in [a hate group] fashion."

Aside from the Minutemen support, Hayes funded the proposal almost entirely on his own, giving $10,500 to the Future Denver committee over the past 10 months. Hayes also used paid petition circulators to gather signatures.

But the initiative faces an uphill battle on Tuesday. City Councilmen Paul Lopez and Rick Garcia organized a Committee to Defeat 100, which Garcia says has raised $30,000 to fight the proposal through phone calls, "robocalls" and direct mail pieces.

Garcia says that the initiative amounts to bad policy. As the city law stands today, Denver police may impound the vehicle of someone driving without a license, but they are under no obligation to do so.

"We have 19 ordinances in our city that give the police the authority to impound vehicles," he says. "This ordinance would take the discretion out of the hands of the police and require them to impound."

Other faith organizations and immigrants rights groups have also spoken out against the initiative, saying that its attention to undocumented immigrants would force police to engage in racial profiling.

"This law provides leeway for police to assume that people who ‘look’ Latino or speak Spanish are undocumented," says Lisa Duran, executive director of Rights for All People, an immigrant organizing group.

Though Hayes adamantly denies that the proposal permits racial profiling, he admitted to engaging in such activity recently. "I was driving and I had two people almost hit me," he says. "I could see that they were of Spanish descent. I wondered if they were licensed or not. You have to wonder."

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