DENVER- The majority of Colorado’s sheriffs have officially agreed to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants based solely on requests from the federal government, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
The civil rights group has been challenging the role local law enforcers play in national immigration policy. In April, the ACLU sent a letter to Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson explaining that no sheriff’s department had the legal authority to detain people on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) request alone. Wilson agreed and officially put an end to the detention policy, a week later the ACLU sent that same letter to the rest of Colorado’s 64 sheriffs.
Some sheriffs see it as their duty to comply with these federal requests, known as “detainers.” In fact, even the ACLU acknowledges that until recently the wording of the federal “Secure Communities” immigration program appeared to mandate that sheriffs hold immigration suspects even though ICE detainers are not official warrants or court orders. Some sheriffs honored the requests out of their own — or their communities’ — views about undocumented immigrants. Others sheriffs steadfastly want to stay out of the politically and legally messy business of detaining immigrants on the fed’s behalf.
“Colorado law does not authorize Colorado peace officers to deprive people of liberty based on suspicions about their immigration status,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director.
Silverstein also alerted sheriffs that, in addition to assuming legal liability for holding people on ICE detainers, they also were also taking on huge costs to taxpayers. The ACLU’s letter points to immigration data showing that ICE requested more than 8,700 detentions statewide between 2011 and 2013, requests which reached nearly every sheriff in the state. The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates that the cost of honoring these requests — which often double the amount of time a person spends in jail — is in the realm of $13 million a year.
Both the liability and the cost of heeding ICE detention requests hit home for Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher earlier this month when his county settled a civil suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of a woman named Claudia Valdez who was detained for three extra days in 2012 on ICE’s request. The county paid out $30,000 in what Walcher called a business decision. Since that decision, he has also announced that his office will no longer hold people on ICE detainers alone.
The ACLU has posted a map detailing which sheriffs have agreed not to hold people on ICE detainers. The map is morphing as each county maps out its own immigration policy. As of posting, it shows the ACLU waiting on official responses from roughly 28 counties, though Silverstein notes he hasn’t heard from a single sheriff who explicitly plans to continue honoring ICE’s requests.
Sheriff Pete Palmer of Chaffee County is one of those who hasn’t officially responded to the ACLU so far, though he notes his legal counsel has been bugging him to do so. For Palmer, it’s not a complicated decision.
“It’s obvious that we just do not have the authority to hold someone absent a valid charge or warrant,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll get a detainer on someone in custody that comes from a different jurisdiction, but that has to be signed by a judge. It’s the same with ICE, the FBI, any agency.”
Up in Weld County, which has its own history of immigration battles with the ACLU, sheriff’s department spokesman Sean Standridge said that whether or not they’ve officially replied to the ACLU’s recent letter, they’ve been complying for a long time.
“We treat all ICE holds as requests only. That’s been our policy since 2011,” he said.
Weld County Sheriff John Cooke said his department does attempt to work with immigration officials, notifying them two days in advance when a detainee they’ve requested a hold on is about to be released. He emphasized that he has seen ICE officials scale back their detention requests to people who are accused of violent crimes.
“But if ICE wants people held past their release date, they’ll have to change their policy and get the detainers signed by an administrative judge,” Cooke said.
Things are a little different in Douglas County, where Undersheriff Tony Spurlock will soon replace Sheriff David A. Weaver, who was just elected to the county commission. Spurlock said his department knows about the ACLU letter and that it disagrees with the group’s legal — and, ultimately, political — stance.
“If you are arrested and ICE asks us to hold or detain you, we will comply with ICE,” Weaver said.
Deborah Sherman, spokeswoman for the department, added that the holds are always for specific, short durations and that ICE usually responds within 24 hours.
The ACLU’s Silverstein maintains that only in El Paso County might Colorado peace officers have the legal authority to retain someone based on suspected immigration status. There, some deputies have been officially ICE-certified through the federal government’s controversial 287g program. The program is somewhat rare because it’s expensive for countries to run — ICE doesn’t share any of the costs of adding immigration enforcement to regular police work. U.S. Department of Justice investigations have also found that the program routinely leads to spikes in racial profiling against latinos.
Aside from El Paso County, Silverstein said he’s looking for confirmation from every county in the state.
“The progress so far has been encouraging, but if any Colorado sheriffs continue to deny people liberty on the basis of ICE detainers, they are going to hear from the ACLU.”
[Immigration reform advocates rally before an ICE office in May, 2014. Image by Light Brigading]