For years, any time Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked, sheriffs across Colorado held suspected undocumented immigrants for up to two business days beyond their release dates so that the feds could pick them up. On weekends and holidays, two days could easily stretch into four or five.
That changed in 2014 when a federal district judge ruled that by holding a woman past her release date, a county jail in Oregon had violated her Fourth Amendment rights. With that, the practice of honoring ICE “detainer requests” largely ended in Colorado. These days, nearly all of the state’s 64 county sheriffs refuse to hold anyone beyond their release dates unless presented with a warrant by immigration agents.
“Once they are done with charges we let them go,” Denver County Sheriff Patrick Firman said Saturday at an immigrant and refugee forum sponsored by city leaders.
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that all counties in Colorado had confirmed that they would no longer comply with ICE detainer requests unless signed by a federal judge. And a report released in January this year by the conservative group Federation for American Immigration Reform reported that 30 Colorado counties have specific policies against holding people for immigration agents without a warrant.
That doesn’t mean law enforcement isn’t talking with ICE. Across the state, sheriffs have varying policies regarding communication with federal immigration enforcement. Some sheriffs, such as in Boulder County and Garfield County, note the birthplace of every person they book upon intake, and make this information available to ICE on a daily or weekly basis.
“We do provide ICE with information about the people in our jail — it’s public record, anybody can ask for it,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle in an interview in January. When ICE asks for it, Boulder County will also provide information about release dates. Denver County does the same.
“At this point, we will let ICE know, just as we let know any citizen know, the date that someone is being released,” Denver County Sheriff Firman said Saturday.
Some sheriff’s departments, such as in Conejos County, will share information about “foreign-born nationals” in their custody, but only if ICE requests it. A non-U.S. birthplace serves as a marker because sheriffs cannot necessarily determine the immigration status of a person in their custody. Foreign-born nationals also can be visa recipients, green-card holders and citizens.
Mike McWilliams, the undersheriff of Eagle County, says “We notify ICE every day of every foreign-born person who comes into our detention facility. It’s one of the booking questions.” Eagle County does its best to provide accurate release dates when ICE requests them, McWilliams says.
Still others refuse to share — or even collect — any of this information at all.
“We don’t collect information about place of birth,” says Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze. “And we don’t send it out — why would we? We have no reason to.”
This variation is significant. Every person who is booked into county jail has their fingerprints taken and sent to the federal government, and ICE can use this fingerprint data to track down people of interest. But it’s easier to find people when counties share their information up front, particularly when people are booked and released rather quickly. That means that whether or not immigration enforcement will be waiting for someone upon release often depends upon the county in which he or she is booked.
Gabriela Flora, a program director for the immigrant advocacy group American Friends Service Committee, says communication with ICE can be more detrimental than people imagine. If they fear immigration authorities, people may miss court dates or important follow-ups, like sobriety programs or anger management classes.
“Sheriffs may say ‘we’re just communicating,’ but it has huge impacts. It means that people will have fear around showing up to their court date or following up on any further sentencing they may have,” she says.
Guadalupe García de Rayos, reportedly one of the first undocumented immigrants deported under President Donald Trump, was arrested following a routine annual meeting with ICE officials.
Sheriffs are not required to share information with ICE — it’s not the responsibility of states or local governments to enforce federal immigration laws. Chris Johnson, the executive director of the organization County Sheriffs of Colorado, says that it’s up to individual counties to determine their own policies on the matter.
Still, Trump’s executive order on immigration has some sheriffs worrying. The order, signed on Jan. 26, threatens to withhold federal grant money from so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.” The term has no legal definition, but the order appeared to define it as localities that do not communicate with ICE. The order also says that the Secretary of Homeland Security “has the authority to designate, in his discretion and to the extent consistent with law, a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction.”
At least one sheriff in the country has changed his policy following the order. Miami-Dade County, which hasn’t honored federal detainer requests for years, restarted the practice last month over fears of losing federal funding.
The issue is a sensitive one. Many sheriffs were initially hesitant to share their policies with The Colorado Independent. Chaffee County Sheriff Spezze hung up on this reporter — twice — before agreeing to explain his policy.
Denver Sheriff Firman said Saturday that he has asked Denver city attorneys to review his department’s current policy. In Bent County, Sheriff David Encinias says he is planning to do the same. He says he currently communicates with ICE about foreign-born nationals in his custody, and has a policy against cooperating with detainer requests. Though he hasn’t actually received such a request in years, he wonders if he shouldn’t change his policy to start doing so again in the future. Despite the Oregon judge’s ruling, many counties nationwide continue to honor such requests.
“What I’m doing now is I won’t accept their detainer requests, but I don’t know what they’re talking about with regards to federal funding,” Encinias says. “I maybe will change my mind to holding them.” He says he’s confused about what the order means, and feels that it is meant to cause doubt among sheriffs. “I’m not going to say it’s a threat, but it appears that way.”
The Independent contacted sheriffs in Colorado’s 64 counties to determine their policies. Click over the county to see what its practices are. Note: A few counties have yet to respond. We will continue to update this infographic as we hear back from county sheriff’s departments.
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.