Debate over bill that would stop courthouse arrests by ICE turns ugly

GOP lawmakers jeered when a Democrat asked they not say ‘criminal aliens’

Rep. Dave Williams spoke with his colleagues about a bill barring civil arrests at courthouses on March 4, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Colorado House on Wednesday began debating a bill that would prevent immigration law enforcement agencies from arresting people at courthouses in Colorado. If passed, the law would be one of the most significant steps Colorado has taken to limit the ability of ICE agents to operate in the state. Anticipating a long debate, Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who is sponsoring the bill, was brief when introducing it. “I ask for an aye vote,” she said.  

Lining up to speak next were Republican lawmakers, none of whom spoke in support. Over the next hour, they warned it could prevent federal, state and local law enforcement officials from trying to do their job. The proposed law states officers who make a civil arrest while inside or nearby a courthouse in Colorado would be liable for damages in a civil action lawsuit and held in contempt of court. 

“The safest place to do their job and make an arrest is in the courthouse,” said Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Republican from Watkins. “The majority of these arrests are people who have broken the law. That means they could be dangerous.” 

Herod responded that she hopes to protect immigrants who are harmed by their landlords, victims of domestic violence or witnesses in a trial. The proposed law would apply to anyone who visits a courthouse. 

Even so, several Republican lawmakers pressed on. They proposed what they described as “pro-law enforcement” amendments. One would allow law enforcement to make such arrests if the person being arrested doesn’t have documentation to be in the U.S. legally. Another sought to strip liability for law enforcement officers who violated the proposed law. The proposals would essentially gut the bill, Herod said. 

“If this fails,” Rep. Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said of one amendment, “it will prove that we live in alternate universes.”

Democrats voted all amendments down.

“There are competing views on what’s lawful and what’s not lawful,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs who has backed a number of anti-immigration policies and has publicly called on Denver, which prohibits city employees from asking people for their immigration status, to cooperate more with ICE. 

“If my sheriff wants to assist ICE, why are we placing a personal liability on him or his officers. It’s crazy we will punish law enforcement for helping our immigration authorities. … We shouldn’t punish cops who want to make sure our streets are safe.” 

More than 1,000 people marched on July 12, 2019 in protest of the detention of immigrants in private prisons, including the detention facility in Aurora, Colo. run by GEO Group.
More than 1,000 people marched on July 12, 2019 in protest of the detention of immigrants in private prisons, including the detention facility in Aurora, Colo. run by GEO Group. (Photo by Cullen Lobe for The Colorado Independent)

It’s unclear whether any state or local law enforcement agencies raised concerns about the policy proposal. None testified against in committee. Bill sponsors said none contacted them. And at least two GOP lawmakers raising concerns about impacts on law enforcement, including Williams, told The Colorado Independent they did not hear from anyone with ties to law enforcement ahead of the House debate. Herod said she thought the GOP arguments were disingenuous. 

As the debate went on and grew more heated, GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf, a military veteran and cattle rancher from Washington County who was appointed to his seat, stepped up to the lectern. 

“There are many instances — and I do not need to name them — of foreign-born people in this country who have committed crimes, in some cases heinous crimes, against the citizens of the United States,” he said to a mostly empty House chamber as lawmakers chatted amongst themselves. “These particular criminals have no respect for any law, especially the laws of the United States.” 

Herod pointed out that the legislation applies to civil arrests — not criminal arrests. But that didn’t stop Holtorf from doubling down. During his seven-minute speech, he used the phrase “criminal aliens” at least nine times.

“Please do not refer to people as illegal aliens,” Rep. Tony Exum, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, chided. Exum was presiding over the chamber as the speaker. “You can refer to them as immigrants or non-citizens.” 

Republicans booed and jeered. 

“Mr. chairman,” Holtorf shot back, “the word I said was criminal aliens. If you want to gavel me down on criminal aliens then I will…” 

Exum slammed the gavel. The room went silent. 

The phrase “illegal alien” is the subject of another bill backed by Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat from Denver, who wants to remove the phrase from Colorado’s law and replace it with “undocumented immigrant.” Lontine’s bill is scheduled for its first full House vote on Friday. 

“No one is an alien and people are not illegal,” Herod told The Colorado Independent. But not using the phrase, Williams said, “desensitizes the public to what’s actually happening,” referencing the illegal entry into the U.S.  

Williams brushed off the criticism that he was being disingenuous to raise concerns about the Herod bill’s impact on law enforcement. 

“Even though there might not have been organized opposition, we still felt that it would adversely affect and impact them generally,” Williams told The Colorado Independent. “It does appear that we are treating law enforcement with an unnecessary and antagonistic suspicion.” 

Herod and other Democratic lawmakers, however, were noticeably bothered by the tenor of the debate. 

“It’s very hard to have substantive policy conversation and even compromise when people are not willing to speak directly,” Herod told The Colorado Independent after the vote. 

The House passed the bill on a voice vote. It still needs final approval before going to Gov. Jared Polis’s desk for a signature. Polis, who threatened to veto proposed legislation last year to limit the reach of ICE in Colorado, has not said whether he’ll sign the bill. 

Said Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, “The Governor supports the principle of this bill to keep people safer and now that the bill is set to pass, his staff is carefully reviewing the final version of the legislation.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. Republicans have abandoned law and order…they are only going after some kind of dictatorship…they NEED ICE, and some of the other agencies to fill out their Brownshirt Cletus Army…there are real criminals sitting in the White House….and yet, the gang of putin remains in power…the DOJ has been corrupted by Barr….the Senate republicans are lead by a Moscow agent named Mitch…so, off topic, but not really…republicans are the enemy of our Democracy, and they need to be removed from power…period..

  2. We do, indeed, live in different universes. The universe of common sense, humane laws and attitudes – what I would call truly Christian values,; versus a universe that takes pleasure in demeaning other human beings, remaining willfully ignorant of of lives of others not like them and more inclined to a narrow vision of humanity and the world in general.

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