Colorado immigration partnership with feds wrongly focusing on non-criminals, study says

A program that delegates federal immigration enforcement powers to local officers is not netting as many serious criminals in Colorado as in other states, says a study released today by the Migration Policy Institute.

Instead, two-thirds of the non-citizens detained under Colorado's 287(g) program haven't committed any crime -- serious or not.

One of the main goals of the federal 287(g) program is to deport serious criminals who are in the country illegally. But Colorado uses it toward a different end: catching human smugglers. Often, the smuggler goes to jail while the passengers he was paid to smuggle wind up getting deported. In many cases, the passengers have committed no crime -- which is contrary to the aim of the 287(g) program.

In March 2007, then-Governor Bill Ritter signed a 287(g) agreement with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Lawmakers hoped the agreement would help the State Patrol enforce a new law aimed at human smuggling in Colorado.

The 287(g) agreement allowed a cadre of state troopers known as the Immigration Enforcement Unit, or IEU, to 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.

But as the Westword cover story "Road to Nowhere" points out, prosecuting those smugglers after they're caught proved more difficult than lawmakers had imagined.

The Migration Policy Institute report found several flaws with the 287(g) program, which is now operating in seventy-two jurisdictions nationwide. (Colorado has two active 287(g) agreements; the second is with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.) Among the problems identified in the study is that the program "is not targeted primarily or even mostly toward serious offenders" -- known in ICE terminology as Level 1 and 2 offenders.

That's especially true in Colorado. The study found that fewer than 10 percent of ICE detainers issued by 287(g) officers were for Level 1 or 2 offenders. In fact, most of the detainers -- 68 percent -- were for "non-citizens with no criminal violations at all."

Many of those non-citizens are smuggling passengers, officials say. From the study:

ICE supervisors and 287(g) officers reported that task force policy is to inquire about immigration status and initiate ICE detainers only in smuggling and human-trafficking cases or when state troopers (including troopers unaffiliated with the 287(g) program) arrest a person they suspect of being unauthorized.

It's that last part to which local immigrant advocates object. They say the 287(g) program is a dragnet. "They're just picking people up," Eddie Soto, executive director of El Centro Humanitario in Denver, told Westword last year. "The original state law said they wouldn't act as ICE, but that's basically what they've been doing."

In its study, the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, offers several suggestions for how to improve the 287(g) program. Among them: Deport non-citizens only after they've been convicted of a Level 1 or 2 offense. Require participating jurisdictions to record race and ethnicity data on traffic stops in order to discourage racial profiling. And ensure that jurisdictions focus on Level 1 and 2 offenders by discontinuing 287(g) agreements in places that don't -- which could include Colorado.

More from our Immigration archive: "Secure Communities: Colorado signs on to fingerprint check for illegal immigrants."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar