Bill to compel counties’ use of Secure Communities passes 2nd reading under heavy debate

immigration seal
(image: New Mexico Independent)

A bill to pull state funding from local communities if they choose not to participate in the federal Secure Communities program–called an immigration dragnet by some State Representatives and local community leaders–passed the House on second reading today. Supporters of the bill say that it would compel rogue local communities with both “a carrot and a stick” to comply with a federal mandate they say will make communities safer.

House Bill 1140 would end severance tax and cigarette settlement fund disbursements to local communities that refuse to comply with a federal program that runs fingerprints of all those arrested through the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. The bureau in turn is supposed to check those prints with FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement databases for immigration status and prior criminal records.

“House bill 1140 is an effort to make our communities more secure,” Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said. “Secure Communities is a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement comprehensive strategy to improve and modernize the identification and removal of convicted criminal aliens. Let me say that again. Convicted criminal aliens.”

Former Gov. Bill Ritter signed the memorandum of agreement in January with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to bring Secure Communities to Colorado. The program is designed to target criminal illegal aliens first, but does extend to those who have not committed previous crimes beyond being in the country illegally.

The Colorado Independent previously reported that ICE data shows that as of Sept. 30, 2010, 64,072 individuals had been deported. Of those deported, 17,174 had committed no crime beyond illegal presence in the country, 14,020 had committed an aggravated felony or two or more felonies, 25,619 had committed non-violent felonies or three or more misdemeanors and 7,259 were deported for minor offenses.

While Secure Communities is still in a pilot phase, it is scheduled to be in every U.S. county by 2013.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said that she was concerned the bill would detract from efforts of community policing and would serve to reduce the number of reported crimes. Fields said she was concerned the policy could lead to racial profiling.

“There were some concerns from some of the people who were testifying that this would have an increase in racial profiling in some communities, as well as having a chilling affect on some of these folks not reporting crimes because of the impact of this dragnet approach to immigration,” Fields said.

Balmer said that 90 percent of the argument was centered on Fields concerns. “This really is a philosophical decision — that is a difficult philosophical decision — and is a decision that will cause you to have a hard time making a decision about how you are going to vote for the bill.”

Balmer said the County Sheriffs of Colorado supports Secure Communities because it would help them to avoid racial profiling by avoiding the need to determine for themselves what a person’s immigration status is, and instead running all fingerprints through the system.

Other Democrats questioned the need to force local communities to conform to federal laws by withdrawing state funding from counties that may not have the money to implement the program or choose not to.

Balmer emphasized that communities would not be compelled to participate until federal funding for their county is available, and therefore, he said, it will not cost local governments money in an already down economy.

“If they want to guarantee that funding is still there, then enforce the law,” Rep. Mark Barker, R-Colorado Springs, said. “It has also been suggested that this bill might be applied to people who have not been convicted of a crime. I have verified with the sponsor that the only people we are talking about are people who are not citizens of our country and have been convicted of a crime.”

“Our job is not to mess with what the federal government ought to be doing, Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, said. “Our job is to take care of the people of the state of Colorado, not telling the municipalities again in another bill what to do by holding a hammer over their heads if they don’t like what we say.”

Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Alamosa,  agreed.

“I don’t like the way we are characterizing these people. They are not illegal, they are undocumented. There are no illegal aliens in this world.”

Vigil said that there have been many instances where immigration raids have filled local jails and have not seen the appropriate level of removal, which costs local governments resources that could be used for local policing.

Immigration lawyer Joyanne Athanasiou told the Colorado Independent in a past interview that 48-hour detainers have largely been underfunded across the country, costing New York $4.5 million and Travis County, Texas $1.3 million so far.

Denver, Arapahoe and El Paso Counties are signed up to be test pilot counties for the program. However, Denver mayoral candidates Doug Linkhart and James Mejia have said they oppose the program in its current form and said they would look for a way to drop out of the program if possible.

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