Police arrest, don’t deport, illegal immigrants
LONGMONT, Colo. – These days, with discussion about immigration and integration making local, state and national headlines, one question keeps coming up: If so many people are breaking immigration laws, why don’t police officers arrest them?The answer is a simple combination of two factors: a lack of resources and a system that is not set up for local agencies to enforce a federal law.”The federal government at this point is not interested in status offenders,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “That’s clearly the message we get time and time again.”That means an illegal immigrant who otherwise follows the law and stays out of trouble faces almost no chance of being forcibly deported. And even those who make minor missteps, such as shoplifting or driving without insurance, likely won’t be sent home.It is only when illegal immigrants are convicted of a felony that federal officials take an interest in making sure they are deported. And even then, the crime usually has to be either violent, sex-based or against children, officials said.”It is normally serious offenders, violent offenders, drug offenders,” Pelle said. “There is very little interest in things like DUIs and theft.”Adds Weld County Sheriff John Cooke: “Once an illegal immigrant makes it to Colorado, we can’t take any action against them unless they commit a crime.”
Determining dangerWhen criminals are arrested in Colorado, they are asked their place of birth, which helps police officers and deputies accurately identify suspects.Each week, county jails send a list of every foreign-born person in custody to the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Included in that report is the reason an alien was jailed.From the county perspective, the process, which is called an immigration hold, is a paperwork formality. During the hold, arrestees remain in jail serving their sentence, like any other inmate.After the sentence is complete, it’s up to immigration officials to decide whether someone on a hold is dangerous enough for the federal government to begin deportation proceedings, Pelle and Cooke said.If that’s not the case, the alien is simply released from jail back into the community.
According to Cooke, the immigration holding facility in Denver has about 300 beds, so federal agents have to be selective about who they choose to deport, given the lack of resources.That means offenders who have committed crimes deemed not serious enough for deportation remain in Colorado, Cooke said. He estimated that illegal immigrants cost Weld County taxpayers about $2 million annually to house and feed.Estimates of how many illegal immigrants are in jails are hard to come by.Cooke said the jail population of foreign-born people can be as high as 25 percent, but he didn’t know how many of those are illegal immigrants and how many have permission to live and work in the country.’Basic public safety’On a recent Tuesday, for instance, the Boulder County Jail was home to 76 foreign-born people out of a total inmate population of 454. Most were from Mexico, but others came from places as disparate as Holland, South Africa, Mali and Mongolia.
Pelle said local police officers and deputies don’t focus on immigration violation as a crime because the federal government controls border policy.There are no state or local laws that address immigration, he said, rendering local law enforcement largely unable to do anything even if there was widespread community support.”I can’t detain anyone. I can’t deport anyone. I don’t have access to federal courts. The best I can do is hold onto someone for a short time and turn them over to the federal government,” Pelle said. “They say it’s illegal. Yes, it is. So is transportation of alcohol across state lines without a tax license,” Pelle continued. “And we don’t enforce that law. There are things that we are not empowered to enforce.”Pelle added that having local police or deputies enforce immigration laws would mean illegal immigrants might fear calling 911 when they need help. That’s not the kind of place Boulder County is, Pelle said.”My job is to keep, first and foremost, people from getting hurt,” Pelle said. “Those folks are here in our community and need to have some level of confidence in local government to provide basic public safety. A wife shouldn’t be afraid to call police during a domestic-violence assault because of her immigration status.”
Labor demandsPresident Bush recently outlined a plan for strengthening border security, reforming immigration laws and creating some sort of guest-worker program for illegal immigrants who are living in the country.Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal immigration agents have primarily targeted illegal immigrants working at jobs on military bases and other “critical infrastructure” sites.In a Nov. 29 speech on the Texas-Mexico border, Bush said the U.S. must enforce immigration laws even away from the border. Federal statistics say there are about 8.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States. An estimate by the consulting firm Bear Stearns puts the number closer to 20 million.”When you match willing worker with willing employer on a job Americans won’t do, with a tamper-proof card that says, ‘I’m here legally for a temporary basis,’ it means our border patrol agents won’t have to chase people coming here illegally to work,” Bush said. “They’ll be able to chase criminals and drug traffickers and crooks.”Cooke said reducing the demand for illegal labor would lower the number of people who cross the country’s borders illegally.”You need to stop it at the border. You need to make sure they are not allowed in,” Cooke said. “You need to go after the employers. I’d like to see ICE go after some of the employers.”