In June 2019, Jade Kominek, an investigative analyst with the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles, emailed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee to inquire about the immigration status of someone who was the subject of a DMV investigation.
Jeff Hamilton, a local deportation officer with ICE, responded by sending Kominek the file the agency had on the individual. "She’ll likely be an arrest for us in addition to any state criminal charges you folks might file," Hamilton wrote, then signed off with "Good hunting!"
Kominek followed up to thank Hamilton and let him know that the DMV didn't plan to pursue criminal charges against the individual, but was instead handling the case administratively. "But let me know if you need info on her from me," Kominek offered.
Hamilton's response: "Definitely we’d like to get her current info (home address, phone, work address, vehicle, whatever else you can share!)."
Kominek replied with this: "Yes, I'm just waiting on her to call me back...The address we have on file for her is from 2001 so I'm not sure if it's current. I will get all of her current info as soon as she calls me back. She will call because I have her record blocked from getting any kind of ID and I know she wants an ID." She added a smiley emoticon at the end of the email.
This exchange was one of dozens between Colorado DMV investigators and federal immigration authorities, particularly Hamilton, over the last few years. The emails, obtained by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition through an open-records request, show that the DMV and ICE had a chummy relationship dating back to at least 2018 and well into 2020, despite the fact that the State of Colorado had been encouraging residents to apply for a driver's license regardless of immigration status.
"The community has been stricken with fear and lack of trust when going to the DMV to obtain these special licenses that were created for them. It turns out that the fear they held was for good reason, and might I say that these emails and these records confirm the worst of our fears," says Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil-rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office.
Now, some state lawmakers want to establish a data-sharing firewall between state agencies and federal immigration authorities so that undocumented immigrants can feel safe getting driver's licenses and accessing other state services.
The interaction between Kominek and Hamilton illustrates the open line of communication that the DMV and ICE had for years.
The two agencies worked closely on fraud investigations, with the DMV often asking ICE to run a name or fingerprints through its database. It frequently paid off for both: The DMV would get more information about a suspect, and ICE would often get hits on undocumented immigrants that it could target.
In 2018 and 2019, the relationship became especially collegial between a handful of DMV investigators and Hamilton; one investigator even invited Hamilton to his birthday party in 2019. Through it all, the investigators used Hamilton as a helpful resource, while gladly sharing personal identifying information about Colorado residents with ICE.
In February 2020, Hamilton asked DMV investigator Brian Beary for some files. "Anything for you, man!" Beary responded. "You always help me out so I'm more than happy to do the same for you."
The emails indicate that Hamilton would sometimes coordinate with DMV investigators to learn when they would be pursuing criminal charges and determine when would be the right time to detain the individuals in question on immigration charges.
"The emails obtained showed DMV staff operating as unofficial deputized immigration officers for ICE by helping them identify and surveil individuals. And this was all without ICE ever presenting a criminal warrant to obtain that information," Siena Mann of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said during a February 11 press conference.
In 2013, the Colorado Legislature had passed legislation that gave undocumented immigrants the ability to get Colorado driver's licenses. Since then, the state has been encouraging residents, regardless of status, to get licenses, on the grounds that it improves public safety.
When the Colorado Department of Revenue, which houses the DMV, became aware of the emails subject to CIRC's open-records request, "it came to light that communications between a few department employees and ICE agents were inappropriate and unprofessional," says Megan Tanis, a DOR spokesperson. "While these actions were within our statutory authority, the language used was not in alignment with the ideals and values of the department."
After the department became aware of the emails, she adds, it "formally counseled" the DMV investigators and "provided training to address their actions."
Additionally, the Department of Revenue restructured its Motor Vehicle Investigations Unit and "retrained staff on the appropriate uses of data sharing." Today, Tanis says, "any request solely for the purpose of civil immigration enforcement is immediately denied."
And, in what will almost certainly end any chummy relationship between DMV investigators and ICE, Tanis notes that now "any DMV-initiated contact with any federal agency requires review and approval by a supervisor prior to contact being made and information shared."
In May 2020, following pressure from immigrant-rights advocates and state lawmakers, Governor Jared Polis issued executive guidance to state agencies, advising them to start tracking whenever the feds requested personal identifying information maintained by the state.
Now, a handful of state lawmakers, including Senator Julie Gonzales and Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, plan to introduce legislation that will turn that executive guidance into law and take it a bit further.
"It is our responsibility in the state to ensure that all Coloradans have trust in our state agencies. That trust has been broken, and it’s on us to make it right," Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said during the February 11 press conference.
According to Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill, "The Governor's Office and the Department of Revenue are open to working with legislators to put a variation of [the executive] guidance into law, and have spoken with legislators and the advocates about doing just that during this coming legislative session."
The proposed legislation, which the lawmakers plan to introduce in the legislative session that restarts on February 16, would completely prohibit state employees from sharing personal identifying information with the feds for the purpose of immigration enforcement without a signed order from a judge.
The bill would also place restrictions on when state employees can ask about the immigration status of Colorado residents with whom they come in contact.
Additionally, in order to obtain access to a database maintained by a state agency, federal employees would have to certify that they will not use any data they access for the purpose of immigration enforcement, but instead use it only as part of a criminal investigation.
Any state employees who violate the provisions of the bill would be subject to civil penalties.
"ICE maintains that cooperation with local law enforcement is essential to protecting public safety," says Alethea Smock, a local spokesperson for ICE.
But lawmakers and advocates argue that the rights of immigrants also need to be protected. "ICE has plenty of ways to do its immigration enforcement without compromising our community in its ability to seek state services, which, in a lot of ways, we’ve been kind of begging them to do," says Jahanian, who has spent years clashing publicly with the agency. "The intention is to put up a wall."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.