Cops struggle with immigration laws |

Cops struggle with immigration laws

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE-VAIL ” When an illegal immigrant was suspected of kidnapping his girlfriend’s two children in August, few in the community would talk to police looking for the children because many feared exposing themselves as illegal immigrants, Avon police Chief Brian Kozak said.

Kozak disapproves of a Colorado immigration law that requires his and other police departments to report illegal immigrants they arrest to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Kozak said.

Kozak and other local department heads say the federal immigration law undermines their ability to do effective police work. Among the concerns is the difficulty of enforcing the law, a lack of trust from illegal immigrants and little cooperation from federal agencies, police say.

But critics say the police must follow the law because of the strain they say illegal immigrants cause the public. Stan Weekes, spokesman for the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, said Vail police were “simply unwilling to obey the law.”

“It’s selective enforcement,” Weekes said.

Weekes said the law is clear. His group wants Congress to set realistic numbers for legal immigration, according to its Web site.

Vail police Chief Dwight Henninger also said his officers comply with the law though they find it difficult to enforce. Police lack a comprehensive database to determine whether or not a person is an illegal immigrant, he said.

And even if Vail police could access such a database, Henninger is not sure it would help, he said.

Confounding the problem, the law is unclear as to when police are supposed to report to federal authorities, Henninger said. Kozak’s officers report illegal immigrants to the agency even when they write minor citations; however, Henninger’s officers report them only when they make an arrest.

“We’re being asked to enforce laws we don’t understand,” Henninger said.

When an officer arrests someone, police must find probable cause before reporting a person to federal authorities. Vail police ascertain whether an arrestee speaks English and whether they were born in the United States, Henninger said.

If not, then police discuss that person’s immigration status, he said. Henninger considers this method unreliable, he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement offers a five-week training program on enforcing immigration law, but Henninger and Kozak don’t want to commit their busy forces to the lengthy program, they said.

Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy said that his agency also has difficulty identifying illegal immigrants. If a deputy determines that a person is an illegal immigrant, he or she immediately reports the person to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as the law requires.

Hoy said he would like more aid from the federal government. Better technology with which to identify illegal immigrants and more immigration and customs agents at the local level would help, he said.

“I just don’t think they realize how difficult and challenging it is at the local level,” said Hoy, referring to lawmakers who passed Senate Bill 90.

Henninger said that out of the six times his department notified immigration and customs, the agency only responded once.

Carl Rusnok, spokesman for immigration and customs, said that the agency tries to work closely with local law enforcement. Like other federal agencies, the agency has a limited budget, he said.

“Unfortunately, in Colorado some of the distances are too lengthy to respond quickly,” Rusnok said.

Henninger and Hoy said slow response times from the agency could prevent them from properly detaining illegal immigrants. Both said they don’t have room in their detention facilities to house a van-load of people.

Illegal immigrants are generally held in a detention facility in Denver.

Police also say they also worry illegal immigrants are not reporting crimes.

The law creates a chilling effect that prevents some from being witnesses, making them more likely to become victims of crimes, Henninger said.

“They would rather not say anything than be sent back to their community of origin,” Kozak said.

Marty Lich, Eagle County resident of 13 years, said in a telephone interview that selective enforcement undermines the rule of law. Because of a lack of enforcement by federal, state and local police, illegal immigrants strain the public’s resources, she said.

“These are not victimless crimes,” Lich wrote in an e-mail. “We all pay through higher car insurance premiums following an accident with the uninsured, unlicensed illegal alien driver.”

Kozak said that most illegal immigrants had motor vehicle insurance.

The main problem, police said, was that the illegal immigrant community no longer trusted the police enough to report crimes. Enforcement should rest with federal authorities, they said.

“I don’t think it’s a Colorado issue,” Henninger said. “Immigration and customs needs to do its job.”

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or

Support Local Journalism