He even detailed for Williams what Paisanos' offices looked like. He described a room with a desk and a computer in it, and another room where the passengers waited for the van to pick them up. He said Paisanos advertised in the local newspapers.

This particular trip, he said, had left Houston the day before at 10 p.m. The passengers came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. They were headed to Dallas, Denver, the intersection of two highways in Utah, and Los Angeles. When he was arrested, Chacón-Posada had $497 on him, and he told Williams that $250 of it was paid to him by the passenger he'd dropped off in Dallas.

Williams asked him if he knew whether the passengers were in the United States illegally. Chacón-Posada admitted that some of them probably were but he didn't know which ones. I don't ask questions anymore, he said.

Jose Chacón-Posada was charged with sixteen counts of human smuggling.
Jose Chacón-Posada was charged with sixteen counts of human smuggling.
When immigrants are awaiting deportation, they are held at the ICE detention facility in Aurora.
Anthony Camera
When immigrants are awaiting deportation, they are held at the ICE detention facility in Aurora.

At the end of the interview, Chacón-Posada told Williams that he didn't want to be in any trouble. He was a legal permanent resident of the United States and had lived here since he was a boy, completing nearly all of high school and then earning his GED. He had married a U.S. citizen, from whom he was now separated. This is my only job, he told Williams, and I have two children back in Houston.

******

Bill Ritter, a Democrat, replaced Owens in 2007, but concerns about immigration didn't go away. In March of that year, Ritter signed a contract with ICE that lawmakers hoped would make it easier for the state patrol's new unit to catch human smugglers and traffickers. Known as a 287(g) agreement after the relevant section of federal law, the deal allowed Immigration Enforcement Unit officers to interrogate people they pulled over for traffic violations about their immigration status, arrest anyone they believed to be in the country illegally, and transport those people to deportation facilities.

The 287(g) agreements were dreamt up by Congress in 1996 as a "force multiplier." Faced with a shortage of ICE agents, Congress amended immigration law to allow local law-enforcement agencies to help police illegal immigration in their cities.

The concept was slow to take off, but as the country's fear and obsession with illegal immigrants grew, so did 287(g). In 2007, the Colorado State Patrol was one of 26 agencies to sign an agreement. There are now 71 agreements in 25 states, including two in Colorado. The other is with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and is narrower than the state patrol's in that it only allows officers to check the immigration status of inmates booked into the county jail. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper will replace Ritter as governor in January. In the days following last week's election, Hickenlooper did not respond to Westword's questions about his opinion of the state's human smuggling law and participation in the 287(g) program. But Hickenlooper has said he supports Secure Communities, a federal program that checks the fingerprints of people booked into local jails against a fingerprint database maintained by ICE to identify illegal immigrants. Ritter has been hesitant to sign on to the program, which the federal government says will be implemented in all states by 2013 whether or not local officials are on board. Hickenlooper has said he will join the program if Ritter does not.

But the 287(g) program has drawn criticism from immigrant advocates who see it as a way to make local cops do ICE's dirty work, which they say fosters distrust between undocumented immigrants and the police. If immigrants believe ICE and the local police are the same, they're less likely to report crimes or answer questions. "A lot of people come from places where the police really are bad. This reinforces that belief that it's the same here," says Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee in Denver.

Last year, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a report calling for better control over the program. The GAO found that ICE wasn't clearly communicating the objective of 287(g) to participating agencies, that it was providing poor supervision and failing to effectively track data related to local arrests and detentions. A few months later, the Obama administration said it would reform the program and issue new contracts that addressed those issues.

But at least one agency never got a new contract. Last October, the feds rescinded their 287(g) agreement with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona under Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio's department had the same agreement as Colorado, but the sheriff chose to exercise it aggressively. In two years, Maricopa County helped deport more than 26,000 immigrants — which, according to the Associated Press, was about a quarter of the total number of illegal immigrants deported by all 287(g) programs. Arpaio is now being investigated by the federal government for possibly breaking civil-rights laws.

So Arizona took matters into its own hands. Earlier this year, Governor Jan Brewer signed into law the state's infamous anti-immigration bill, SB 1070, which requires police officers to question people they suspect are here illegally about their immigration status. The federal government is now challenging SB 1070 on the basis that it interferes with its authority to enforce immigration policy and would be a burden on ICE.

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