Colorado spends about $13 million a year to enforce a 2006 state law that requires local cops to report to federal immigration authorities arrestees who they suspect are undocumented immigrants, according to a report by the Colorado Fiscal Institute. Those reported to the feds spend an average of 22 days longer in jail than other arrestees -- and the cost adds up quickly.
But the high price tag is just one argument against what advocates call "show me your papers" laws. They're also concerned with the human cost.
Take the story of nineteen-year-old Luis Antonio Medrano. He was pulled over for speeding and because he doesn't have a driver's license, local law enforcement officers contacted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Medrano told them that although he was undocumented, he was in the process of applying for deferred action, which provides young people brought here as children relief from deportation. His story checked out, but not before he was held in jail for nineteen hours.
"It changed how I view law enforcement and government," Medrano says. "The situation made me feel like I was a criminal for being who I am."
"The net effect is that immigrants see the local police as immigrant enforcement," says Theresa Trujillo of the Colorado Progressive Coalition. "It creates a chilling effect."
The report focuses on a single law, SB90. It was passed in 2006, at a time when paranoia about illegal immigration was high. Then-Governor Bill Owens held a special legislative session just to address the issue, and when it was over, he declared that Colorado lawmakers had passed the "toughest immigration laws in the nation."
The report says that while legislative budget crunchers agreed there would be a cost to SB90, they never quantified how much. The report, its authors say, is the first attempt to do that.
SB90 is supposed to work like this: A police officer arrests someone for a criminal charge. If the cop or the sheriff's deputies booking the arrestee into jail have probable cause to believe that person is undocumented, they report him to ICE, which can choose to issue a "detainer," or a hold request, on the arrestee. Once the arrestee has posted bond, he's held for an additional 48 hours to give ICE time to pick him up. If he doesn't bond out, ICE must wait until he's gone to court and served his sentence before taking custody of him.
But it doesn't always work that way. Often, undocumented immigrants "are told they don't have a right to pay a bond because they have an immigration hold," says Brendan Greene of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "Because people are being misinformed, a lot of times people are staying in jail and awaiting their court date, and that's one of the biggest contributors to the higher costs."
From 2006 to 2011, the report shows that Colorado law enforcement agencies reported a total of 145,183 arrestees to ICE. It's more difficult to calculate how many of those people wound up with detainers, authors say, because data isn't widely available. But an analysis of 2010 and 2011 statistics from Denver and Broomfield counties found that ICE requested holds on 41 percent of those reported to the federal agency.
The report takes a closer look at Denver. In 2010 and 2011, the report shows, the majority of people with ICE holds were in jail for misdemeanor or low-level offenses -- which advocates say is against federal directives to target the most serious offenders.
In addition, 70 percent of those with holds were eventually released to ICE. But first, they spent longer in jail (67 days on average) than other arrestees (45 days). At $54 per day, the report estimates that SB90 cost Denver taxpayers $1.8 million in 2010 and 2011.
If Denver's pattern holds true for the rest of the state (and it may not; for instance, a 2008 report found that ICE requested detainers on just 24 percent of arrestees reported to the federal agency in 2007 by the Aurora Police Department), the report estimates that Colorado is spending $13 million per year detaining undocumented immigrants.
In addition to the report, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition started a hotline in September to collect stories about the effects of laws such as SB90. Greene says 75 percent of callers report that they were stopped by the police for traffic infractions and eventually booked into jail when the police found they had no documentation.
"We're seeing there is a pattern of people being arrested for low-level offenses," Greene says, "and patterns of people having issues with their bonds; patterns of people being held for an extra long time in order to determine their status.
"Nothing like this existed before," he adds of the hotline. "I think it was a tremendous need. It's been really amazing to see the bravery of the callers. Most callers express that they're just happy this exists, to be able to share their story."
Advocates say they're looking for legislative solutions, though they didn't offer any specifics on a conference call to discuss the report earlier this week. "We're looking forward to the next legislative session and to sharing this report with legislators," Trujillo says.
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