Colorado sheriffs, immigration activists, lawmakers join forces for ICE-detainer reform

Last summer Alejandro Menocal was about to be released from the Adams County Jail, where he had served time for dodging court fines. But before he could go, there was a hold up — at first for an hour, then for much longer.

Though he is a lawful permanent resident in the United States, Menocal, 52, was born in Mexico. A policy known as “Secure Communities” notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) anytime an immigrant is arrested, regardless of legal status.

ICE officials asked the Adams County Sheriff’s department to notify them when Menocal would be released from jail and to detain him until agents could pick him up. This process is called a “detainer,” and it’s generating heat from Colorado lawmakers, sheriffs and immigration activists alike.

“The sheriff’s offices in so many parts of the state, at the time, coordinated with ICE,” said daughter Alexis Menocal Harrigan. “On the day he was supposed to be released, I must have called three or four times within an hour… if they’d let him go 20 minutes earlier he would have been a free man.”

Instead, Menocal spent three months in the ICE Geo Detention Center in Aurora. On the outside, Menocal’s new partner and younger children who had relied on him financially were having a hard time surviving the summer.

Fortunately, for Menocal, his daughter was well equipped to advocate on his behalf. Menocal Harrigan is the executive director of Intercambio Denver, an organization serving immigrants. She is a mayoral appointee on the Denver Latino Commission. She was an aide to Sen. Michael Bennet.

Menocal Harrigan is not the typical profile of an ICE detainee’s daughter. In fact, she was already working with sheriffs to get local law enforcement to stop honoring ICE detainers

So, when it came to fighting ICE for her dad, she was a contender. Despite being in her third trimester of pregnancy, she began working toward her father’s release.

“I was able to get advocacy and legal representation on my father’s behalf right way,” said Menocal Harrigan. “If someone without those resources goes through this process, I can’t fathom how difficult it would be. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they’d be successful.”

Just a few weeks after Menocal’s detention, under pressure from immigrant rights activists and the American Civil Liberties Union, all of Colorado’s 64 county sheriffs agreed to stop honoring ICE detention requests.

But it was too late for Menocal, who would spend several more months in the Geo facility before immigration attorney Hans Meyer finally secured his client’s release.

“It was devastating,” said Menocal Harrigan. “My dad couldn’t be there for the birth of his first grandchild.”

A change in the law

A lot has changed since last summer.

This legislative session, sheriffs and immigration-activists have co-drafted a bill that would block local law enforcement from honoring ICE detainers because they are not criminal charges.

“ICE issues holds on people for all kinds of reasons and most don’t have to do with probable cause,” said Brendan Greene of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “Mistakes happen all the time. The person who gets on the hook for that, a lot of time, is the local sheriff, who’s held liable for acting on good faith and trying to respect the hold.”

Menocal Harrigan said the statewide bill is an important validation of the work she, the ACLU and other immigration activists have done.

“The reason the bill is so important is that at the county-to-county level there’s a lot of discretion for sheriffs and not a lot of oversight,” she said. “The ACLU doesn’t have the capacity to check every ICE detention.”

For the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, HB 1356 is also a statement on the failures of national immigration reform.

“This is a pushback on federal government,” said Salazar. “We’re telling the federal government to fix their own issues and stop putting everything on the backs of county sheriffs and state government.”

For their part, sheriffs say they’re happy with the bill and for the legal protection it offers them.

“We are supporting it, but in actuality the bill doesn’t require anything different than what all the sheriffs in Colorado have been doing for some time,” said Chris Johnson, the executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.

Greene agreed that sheriffs have been on the right track, but he added that there’s another perk to passing the bill which goes beyond immigrant rights.

“We’re trying to protect sheriffs from liability and make sure there’s a clearer line between immigration and law enforcement, which will help rebuild community trust,” said Greene.

Immigration activists protest at the Geo Aurora Detention Center in 2009. Photo via AFSC.