Garfield County cops cool to immigration enforcement |

Garfield County cops cool to immigration enforcement

Ryan Summerlin
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Glenwood immigration attorney Jennifer Smith, right, and interpreter Jennifer Quevedo speak to the roughly 170 people at the Glenwood Springs Library on the Sunday after Donald Trump's election.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

The Department of Homeland Security earlier this week announced a broad change in direction on immigration enforcement, part of which could include bringing local law enforcement into the fold to help search for deportable immigrants.

Garfield County law enforcers aren’t enthusiastic about participating.

Soon after the November presidential election, police and sheriff’s departments across the Roaring Fork Valley held an open house to alleviate anxiety among immigrants. The overarching message was that local law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws and would not be out looking for immigrants to deport.

But the new Department of Homeland Security memos are reviving a not-so-old Department of Homeland Security program, 287(g), that would erase that jurisdictional separation. This program encourages local law enforcement departments to be recruited to enforce federal immigration law, which the Department of Homeland Security refers to as a “force multiplier.”

Essentially, your local police officers would become immigration officers.

But none of the local police chiefs or the Garfield County sheriff are eager to jump into the program.

Terry Wilson and Gene Schilling, police chiefs for Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, respectively, weren’t yet familiar with everything in the new Department of Homeland Security memos. But they had some pretty clear feelings on tasking local cops with looking for people to kick out of the country.

Both said they worry about the detrimental effects of putting fear into the community over deportation.

Glenwood Springs police have already seen a recent incident where at a minor traffic wreck three Latinos fled the scene on foot, Wilson said.

Both chiefs worry that fear of deportation will lead many immigrants to leave crimes unreported.

Soon after the election, Schilling issued a statement to the immigrant community with that same message. The Carbondale chief has said he worries that many immigrants will be victims of crimes in which the perpetrators don’t think their victims will go to the police.

“I’m a little frustrated that apparently the winds have shifted somewhere 2,000 miles east of here and all the sudden there’s a different set of federal priorities,” Wilson said. “I hate getting blown around by the wind.”

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario had similar sentiments. “I feel like a pingpong ball in the national game of immigration,” he said of the changing federal policies.

Added Wilson, “I’m not into putting our resources into doing what someone else has prioritized; we have our own local priorities to keep us busy. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of a little bridge that’s being built here,” referring to the Grand Avenue bridge replacement, the largest infrastructure project on the Western Slope in a generation and a major traffic disruptor.

“My focus is on the safety and welfare of the community, period,” he said.

Wilson said he’s “not inclined to be an obstructionist with the feds.”

If there is some situation where Immigration and Customs Enforcement or another federal agency is engaged with suspects in crimes that endanger the local community, then Glenwood Springs police will support and collaborate with them.

“But I’m not interested in (Glenwood officers) being immigration officers,” Wilson said. “If that’s what you want to do, go sign on with (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”

Wilson said his department is a community-based law enforcement agency that “will continue to practice the policing of people’s behavior,” not their ethnicity, background, legal status or religious beliefs.

Rifle Police Chief Thomas Klein said he wasn’t yet well versed in the Department of Homeland Security’s new policies either. He emphasized that he hasn’t seen the 287(g) program implemented in municipal police departments. The program was mostly utilized in jails, he said.

Vallario, who oversees the county jail, isn’t excited about the 287(g) program either.

First, the ability to enforce federal immigration law doesn’t mean much if the jail can’t hold those suspected of being in the country illegally.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement used to be able to request that a jail hold a person believed to be in the country illegally. But so called “Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds” have been widely ruled unconstitutional in federal courts.

Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the resources, especially at the jail, to take on federal immigration enforcement responsibilities. Patrol and detentions deputies would have to be sent to training on how ICE operates and on access to their database, and the jail would need a minimum of four deputies to keep this work up, Vallario said.

When 287(g) was active it was a pretty popular program, mainly at large jails that had undocumented immigrants brought in regularly, said Vallario.

But given the size of the Garfield County jail, it’s probably not worth the investment, the sheriff said.

Vallario said he’s “probably not interested in 287 (g) unless Garfield County started seeing a tremendous number of (undocumented immigrants) being held for (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or law enforcement bringing them in.”

Alternatively, the Department of Homeland Security is bringing back online “Secure Communities,” a fingerprinting program that allows jails to share identification information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That program will largely eliminate the need for 287(g) at the jail.

The jail may not hold a deportable immigrant for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but will share information about that detainee with the immigration agency.

“Right now I can tell you I’m confident I don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration law,” Vallario said.

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