Lawmakers generally recognize that the federal government controls immigration law. But some elected officials in Colorado argue that there are potential avenues through which local leaders can increase oversight of how immigrants are detained.
Adrienne Benavidez, a Democratic state representative from Adams County, will push a bill in the coming legislative session that would allow state health officials to investigate conditions at immigrant detention facilities throughout the state. Benavidez says she's championing the bill "to make sure that people are treated appropriately" while they're in federal government custody in Colorado.
"Once you detain somebody, you’re responsible for them," she explains. "You can’t let them get sick and die on your watch."
The bill comes on the heels of a year fraught with controversy for the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, which is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There have been infectious disease outbreaks, reports of medical neglect, and a recently-made-public internal ICE review blasting how medical staff there handled the care of detainee Kamyar Samimi in the lead-up to his December 2017 death.
Benavidez says the bill would create a task force, headed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, that would send investigators to the Aurora immigrant detention facility, as well as any jails that detain immigrants, on a quarterly basis; the task force would report its findings to legislators. ICE holds most of its detainees in Colorado at the facility in Aurora, but occasionally sends them to county jails, since a few, including the jail operated by the Teller County Sheriff's Office, contract with the federal government for certain immigration proceedings.
Alethea Smock, a spokesperson for the ICE Denver field office, tells Westword that ICE doesn't comment on pending legislation, but adds that robust facility oversight already exists. "ICE ensures detention facilities comply with ICE detention standards through an aggressive inspections program," Smock says.
GEO spokesperson Brian Miller sent us this statement: “While we have not seen a draft bill, we are aware of potential legislation to mandate state inspections of facilities in Colorado housing detainees on behalf of ICE. As a government services provider, we welcome oversight by the agencies we contract with. We encourage state legislators to learn the facts about the solutions we have provided to our government partners and to visit our facility to gain a better understanding of the stringent federal health and safety standards that we are already contractually required to meet and which have been in place since President Obama’s administration. GEO Group has been operating the Aurora ICE Processing Center (AIPC) for more than 30 years and believes that any proposed state oversight should be applied equally, without discrimination, to all facilities in the state that house detainees on behalf of ICE, including county and municipal jails, whether government operated or operated by a contractor."
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Benavidez says the bill would also apply to the unaccompanied migrant children shelter in Westminster, run by behavioral nonprofit Devereux, which will soon start receiving children in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"The Governor believes our country should ensure there is humane treatment of children and people seeking refuge from violence and oppression and will review any piece of legislation that ensures greater accountability of detention centers," said Conor Cahill, Governor Jared Polis's spokesperson, in a statement to Westword.
In October, Aurora City Council passed an ordinance requiring the detention facility to start notifying the local fire department whenever there's an infectious disease outbreak. And following a series of infectious disease outbreaks at the beginning of this year, staffers at the detention facility began notifying the Tri-County Health Department whenever one occurred, which is required by state law. Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat whose jurisdiction includes Aurora, is now sending staff members to the immigrant detention facility each week.
Benavidez's bill wouldn't go quite as far as what legislators and Governor Gavin Newsom are doing in California. In October, Newsom signed a bill into law that bans private prisons in California, including privately operated immigrant detention facilities.