DENVER – Cities and counties that refuse to join a federal immigration database would lose grants from the state under a bill the Colorado House passed Tuesday.
House Bill 1140 would force all cities and counties to join the Secure Communities program, which matches the fingerprints of people booked into jail with a federal database in order to identify illegal immigrants for deportation.
It passed 36-29, with all Republicans and three Democrats supporting it.
Former Gov. Bill Ritter signed Colorado up for Secure Communities just before he left office in January. For now, only El Paso, Denver and Arapahoe counties are participating on a trial basis, but the program is supposed to become mandatory nationally in 2013.
But the sponsor of HB 1140, Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said the federal government intends to offer waivers to communities that don’t want to join. His bill would punish Colorado towns that take a waiver by withholding money from taxes on natural-gas and oil production and cigarettes.
Opponents accused Balmer of using the same heavy-handed techniques that the federal government uses to get states in line with policies such as seat-belt laws and the legal drinking age.
“It is an unusually top-down approach,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, during the first day of the House’s two-day debate about the bill Monday. “I don’t know why we would punish these communities when it’s so costly to comply.”
Some little counties still take paper fingerprints, and they lack the equipment to link to the database, Levy said.
Balmer, though, pointed to amendments to the bill that delay its effect until all 64 counties are able to participate. That won’t happen for “quite a while,” he said.
Last December, outgoing Durango Mayor Michael Rendon and police Chief David Felice sent a letter to Ritter with concerns that Secure Communities could sow distrust between immigrants and the police force.
“Our sworn job is to protect all the residents of the community, and an ill-conceived federal immigration-enforcement program that complicates this duty causes us great concern,” the letter says.
Rendon on Tuesday said local authorities have worked hard to build trust with illegal immigrants and try to assure them that if they call police or firefighters for an emergency they won’t be targeted for their immigration status. But he’s concerned about the message Secure Communities sends to immigrants.
Still, the city hasn’t considered refusing to cooperate with the program, Rendon said.
“My hunch is we would join,” he said.
La Plata County commissioners haven’t taken a position on the issue, said Joanne Spina, assistant county manager. But the county will comply with laws, she said.
Other immigrant-rights advocates said Secure Communities could lead to racial profiling of Hispanics by police, but Balmer said it’s just the opposite.
County sheriffs will send every jail inmate’s fingerprints to the federal Secure Communities database, regardless of race, he said.
“It takes the sheriffs of Colorado out of the racial-profiling business,” Balmer said.
In their December letter, Rendon and Felice asked Ritter not to join or at least to make an exception for domestic-violence victims who might be arrested along with their attackers.
Ritter said in January that federal immigration authorities agreed to take domestic-violence crimes into account when working with the Secure Communities database, but the state’s agreement with the federal government offers few details about how domestic-violence cases will be handled.
Tuesday’s vote sends the bill to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it faces a much tougher road than it did in the Republican-run House.
Herald Staff Writer Shane Benjamin contributed to this report. jhanel@durango herald.com