Task force seeks to create local immigration ‘dragnets’

(Photo/Eric Brandt, Flickr)
(Photo/Eric Brandt, Flickr)

Although Colorado is home to some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, state lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature are now supporting efforts to give local law enforcement more resources to crack down on undocumented immigrants. The plan is causing concern for immigrant-rights advocates, who fear discrimination and racial profiling.

A non-binding Joint Memorial introduced in the Senate Monday would request that the federal government train more local police forces to identify, arrest and detain immigrants who have been charged with crimes in the state. The formal request to Congress would also allow the state to use biometric identification — like DNA tracking — and federal databases to create an enforcement dragnet.

SJM 09-009 is a response to recommendations from the Colorado Immigration/Public Safety Working Group — a state task force created after three vehicle-related deaths allegedly caused by undocumented driver Francis Hernandez last fall in Aurora. It was introduced by Colorado Springs lawmakers Sen. John Morse, a Democrat, and Republicans Sen. Dave Schulteis and Rep. Kent Lambert, and Littleton Republican Rep. Jim Kerr. All but Lambert sat on the immigration and law enforcement task force panel.

The measure would take Colorado’s latest crack-down on undocumented immigrants to the federal level. If the proposal is accepted by the legislature, published copies will be sent to President Barack Obama and Colorado’s Congressional delegation urging action on the issue.

“The [proposed] policy is really talking about better capacity to deputize local and state law enforcement to do immigration work, along with an expansion of different kinds of policing measures, like biometrics technology,” said Chandra Russo, an organizer with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, which represents dozens of advocacy organizations.

“Not only does it result in these draconian and inhumane tactics, but you’re also not fixing our broken immigration system,” Russo said. “It erodes community trust and drains public resources.”

Among the task force’s recommendations is the use of DNA tracking to identify possible undocumented immigrants, including ID cards that contain genetic ‘fingerprints.’

Lance Clem, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which oversaw the immigration panel, said the key benefit of the proposal would be giving local law enforcement the ability to use federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement databases that will “tell local officials right away if someone was undocumented.”

“Being illegal in not in itself a criminal act,” said Clem, who noted that local police in Colorado do not have the power to arrest an individual simply because he or she is undocumented. The individual must commit a crime or infraction first.

Currently, a special state patrol unit with two dozen members specifically focuses on conducting immigration enforcement through traffic stops.

The Hernandez incident kindled a media firestorm when it was learned that the Guatemalan immigrant was able to continue driving after being arrested no less than 16 times for mostly misdemeanor offenses. Within days of the accident, Gov. Bill Ritter called for the creation of an immigration task force.

The 31-member Colorado Immigration/Public Safety Working Group met over the course of a month and eventually concluded in December that it was impossible for local law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of the vast majority of individuals they encountered, and that it was ultimately the federal government’s role to enforce immigration laws.

The working group consisted mainly of law enforcement and state agency representatives. An immigrant-rights activist who was on the committee criticized the task force’s findingson concerns about unfunded mandates, civil and human rights issues, and the inefficacy of previous law enforcement activities to stem smuggling in the minority view section of the final report.

The Colorado police chiefs and sheriffs associations will soon be making recommendations to the Public Safety Department on which communities want to take part in the tougher immigration enforcement measures.

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@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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