But Colorado couldn't do much about it. Immigration laws are federal laws, and state troopers patrolling the highways had no authority to question drivers or passengers about their immigration status. If they pulled over a suspected smuggling load, they were instructed to call federal ICE officers, who didn't always show up. If they didn't, the troopers couldn't do much more than issue the driver a traffic ticket.

Human smuggling was a federal crime only.

Groff, a Denver Democrat, decided to change that by introducing a bill that would make it a state crime to smuggle humans through Colorado. Meanwhile, state representative Alice Borodkin was gathering consensus for a bill to do the same for human trafficking — a more serious offense that involves selling people for money, holding them for ransom or forcing them to work against their will, sometimes as prostitutes. Borodkin was helming an all-inclusive task force that had until January 2007 to evaluate the state's current trafficking laws and propose new ones.

Public defender Tom Ward represented Jose Chacón-Posada.
Anthony Camera
Public defender Tom Ward represented Jose Chacón-Posada.

But by 2006, paranoia about illegal immigration had hit a new high. Both political parties clamored to pass legislation that showed they were addressing the issue, with Republicans seeking to stop illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits and restrict them from voting, and Democrats pursuing gentler measures, such as punishing businesses that knowingly hired undocumented workers.

According to Borodkin, Republican governor Bill Owens also put out a call to lawmakers for legislation regarding human smuggling and trafficking. Borodkin, also a Denver Democrat, obliged and wrote a bill that would have outlawed both.

But political wrangling caused Borodkin's bill to be split in two, and Groff, then the Senate president pro tem, would end up as the sponsor of both. "Peter and I had a little go-around about that," says Borodkin, who is no longer a state legislator. (Neither is Groff; he's now president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.) "I was pissy because he jumped over my head. But the bottom line is, he got it passed."

To drum up support, Groff spent the morning of the day the bills were introduced in March 2006 patrolling I-70 with state troopers, hoping to see firsthand the types of situations the bill aimed to prevent. When he returned to the Capitol, he had a story to tell: He and the troopers had come across a wrecked van that was carrying seventeen suspected illegal immigrants. That, he told lawmakers, was proof they needed to police the problem. His bill sought to make it a crime to transport an illegal immigrant through Colorado in exchange for money or "any other thing of value," while his trafficking bill made it illegal to sell or barter an adult. He also sponsored a third bill to create a new 24-member division within the state patrol to address human smuggling and trafficking.

All three measures became law. But it wasn't enough for Owens, who called a special summer session to deal solely with illegal immigration. The five-day session resurrected many of the Republican-backed bills that had been quashed by the Democrat-controlled legislature and resulted in ten new laws and two resolutions. When it was over, Owens declared that in 2006, Colorado lawmakers had passed the "toughest immigration laws in the nation."

But they hadn't done so without objections. Claude d'Estree, a University of Denver professor who had been working to combat human trafficking since he first encountered it in 1998 as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C., was an advisor to Borodkin's task force in 2006. He thought the legislature was jumping the gun in introducing bills to combat smuggling and trafficking before the trafficking task force had finished its work. Once he read the bills — short one-pagers that used simple language — he was even more outraged, and he ended up testifying against them.

"As a former prosecutor, I looked at this and said, 'I wouldn't know how to use this. What am I supposed to do with this bill?'" says d'Estree, now the head of DU's Human Trafficking Clinic. "People said, 'Claude, it's better to have something on the books and then improve it later.' That has never been my view. My sense is that if you craft crappy law, then it has a reputation from that day on of being crappy."

******

After he was arrested, Jose Chacón-Posada agreed to speak to trooper Patrick Williams without a lawyer. He told Williams that he worked for a company called Paisanos Van Lines LLC out of Houston. He'd been a driver for them for the past two and a half months. The company, he said, was run by three people: Rene, the boss; Chuy, the second in command; and Jesus. One of the three would call him several times a week to see if he wanted to take a trip, driving passengers to destinations around the country and dropping them off. He got paid $600 per trip, plus $500 in expenses.

The passengers had the option of paying Paisanos before they left or paying Chacón-Posada once they reached their destination. Paisanos would give him a trip manifest that listed the passengers' names, their destinations, a phone number to call once they got there and the money they owed. He said he never kept the passengers' money himself; his instructions were to turn it all over to Paisanos.

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