Since late February 2017, the Denver Sheriff Department, which oversees the Denver County Jail and Downtown Detention Center, has been keeping track of how often Immigration and Customs Enforcement sends in requests for the release times of certain inmates being held in those local facilities — ostensibly so that ICE can apprehend them as soon as deputies let them out of jail.
From early 2017 through March 2018, ICE was averaging fifteen such requests per month. But ICE's requests for inmate release dates have jumped significantly during the last six months. From April through September, ICE requested the release dates of 192 inmates being held in Denver's two jail facilities, an average of 32 requests per month.
During the last three months alone, July through September, ICE made 108 requests for inmates' release dates.
This issue was hotly debated last fall when the city was considering legislation to limit local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Immigrant-rights advocates and attorneys took a hard line, advocating that Denver follow in Boston or San Francisco's footsteps and declare itself a “sanctuary city" and prohibit communication between local law enforcement and ICE (unless communication was forced through a judicial warrant).
Mayor Michael Hancock walked a fine line in his rhetoric, calling Denver a “welcoming city,” and faced mounting pressure to pass a bill, sponsored by city council members Paul Lopez and Robin Kniech, that limited Denver's relationship with ICE. Hancock countered with a watered-down version of the bill.
A major sticking point in the debate was whether the sheriff's department should respond to ICE's requests for release times of inmates.
The Denver City Attorney's Office under Hancock pointed out that anyone can find out the release date for an inmate over the phone as long as the caller provides enough identifying information. Eventually a compromise was struck in which the sheriff's department would still give ICE release times for inmates that the federal agency was interested in, but it would advise the inmates of their rights and not allow ICE to see them inside the jails.
That policy was spelled out in the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act, which the mayor signed into law on August 31, 2017, with an accompanying executive order setting up an immigrant legal defense fund.
ICE's local field office director, Jeffrey Lynch, was livid. In a statement, he said, “By passing this irresponsible ordinance, the City of Denver’s leadership has codified a dangerous policy that deliberately obstructs our country’s lawful immigration system, protects serious criminal alien offenders, and undermines public safety.”
But as DSD's quarter-three report detailing 108 ICE requests shows, the sheriff's department continues to provide ICE with information — sometimes weeks after the request is made.
The report, included at the bottom of this article, also shows the charges inmates carry, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. However DSD spokeswoman Daria Serna wrote in an email to Westword that the department does not track inmates' immigration status.
“We receive no information regarding immigration status of any of our inmates,” she wrote. “Pursuant to Federal law, all Federal law enforcement agencies have access to the biometric data gathered by local law enforcement agencies. If the biometric data generates a positive result for ICE, they would be aware of who is in our custody.”
Serna added that the department loses tracks of inmates that ICE asks about once they're released from jail.
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“We are unaware of how ICE takes people into custody and do not participate in any sort of custodial or secure handoff,” she wrote. “We cannot monitor who ICE actually picks up.”
Even with Denver's immigration ordinance in place, multiple Westword investigations have revealed ways in which ICE is utilizing Denver's probation department and courthouses to pick up undocumented persons.
When we asked Serna what would happen if the department simply ignored a fax from ICE requesting an inmate's release date, Serna wrote (bolded emphasis hers): "There would not be a penalty. Pursuant to Sec. 28-253 (d) of the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act The Denver Sheriff Department may respond to a notification request and provide such notifications to the extent the department is reasonably capable of doing so."