Colorado has not gone as far as Arizona in enforcing immigration laws, but a series of measures passed in 2006 show this state is not afraid to get in the enforcement game.
State law requires local law-enforcement officials to report all arrestees believed to be undocumented. In domestic-violence cases, a report to immigration officials isnt made until a person is convicted.
An earlier version of the state law, Senate Bill 06-090, would have required officers to report every person they suspected was in the country illegally precisely what the controversial Arizona law does.
Another measure passed in 2006 mandated Colorado State Patrol to have some troopers deputized to enforce federal immigration law. The result was the 26-member Immigration Enforcement Unit, which has troopers stationed around the state, including Durango.
Among state routes heavily used by human and drug smugglers is U.S. Highway 160.
Lance Clem, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said the 2006 laws were a response to a rash of crashes on state highways involving vanloads of illegal immigrants being smuggled cross country.
News reports from 2006 brim with such crashes, some involving multiple fatalities.
In March of that year, as the growing season was getting under way, in just 24 hours dozens of suspected illegal immigrants were involved in six separate crashes on icy roads in the state.
They were just such terrible crashes, Clem said.
Two other pieces of legislation made human trafficking and smuggling felonies under state law.
Clem said the laws and the immigration-enforcement unit have choked off the underground railroad of illegal immigrants.
Weve seen that pretty much come to a stop, he said. I think the unit has achieved what the Legislature was looking for.
Arizonas law which a federal judges order has prevented, for the time being, from going into full effect may change the situation in Colorado by causing smugglers to circumvent Arizona.
There is some evidence that already is happening.
Holly Landgren, resident agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the number of smuggling loads being apprehended by authorities has surged in recent months.
We had gone a period of about 18 months where we did not work any smuggling loads, she said during an interview at her office. Now weve been getting contacted once or twice a month, just in Durango.
She said this typically happens in spring but did not discount the Arizona crackdown as a possible factor.
Latino-rights activists decry Colorados immigration-enforcement law, arguing it does far more than target human smugglers.
Eddie Soto, director of Los Compañeros program of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said it is tantamount to legalizing racial profiling in the state.
They pretty much trampled the rights of thousands of Latinos that live in Colorado, he said.
Soto was speaking from KDURs radio studio during his Immigrant Music Project show. In the background, tunes from the likes of Celia Cruz, Rio Ritmo and Los del Garrote were playing.
The son of U.S. diplomats, Soto grew up in Mexico but is a U.S. citizen.
He travels to Denver frequently, and he said he has been stopped much more often since the 2006 laws were enacted.
Its creating a lot of fear amongst the immigrant community not to trust police officers, which is going to create more victims, he said.
He said the intent of the immigration-enforcement unit was to go after traffickers and smugglers, but instead it is targeting their victims.
Unfortunately, its become a numbers game. They just want to deport as many people as they can, he said.
He said the units own numbers support this.
In 2009, 44 cases of human smuggling which entails providing transportation and three cases of human trafficking which involves the selling of people were investigated while 521 illegal immigrants were processed.
Soto said the majority of immigrants swept up in the dragnet agree to voluntary departure and leave the country without ever knowing what rights they may have had.
Clem denied activists accusations that the State Patrol unit exists to hunt down illegal immigrants.
They think its the state ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and thats just not true, he said. Were trying to do our best to straighten out some of these myths.
He said all the cases that troopers investigate arise from routine patrols of the state highways.
A request from The Durango Herald to interview the local trooper deputized to enforce immigration was denied.
Colorado State Patrol Capt. Martin Petrik, who works out of the same office, said Trooper Wayne Jones isnt going into businesses checking the papers of their employees.
Hes working the road like any other trooper, he said.
When to make the call
The new Colorado laws drew local police officers and sheriffs deputies into the enforcement push, too.
Although Durango city councilors in 2004 passed a resolution declaring no city resources would be used to enforce immigration law, the 2006 laws trump the city measure.
Officers are required to report to ICE anyone they arrest whom they believe is in the country illegally.
Durango Police Chief David Felice and Capt. James Spratlen, during an interview in the chiefs office, explained how that plays out on the street. Particularly tricky is assessing when the threshold of probable cause has been crossed.
Spratlen said, Lets say I pull over an illegal person from France, from wherever. They cant speak English. Well thats one indicator one bean that goes in the pot. (I) ask for a drivers license. They dont have one. And then the car is registered in someone elses name.
When these factors beans in the pot cumulatively would lead a reasonable person to believe that a person is illegal, the officer has met the standard.
Some factors weigh more heavily than others: If a person, when asked, admits to being undocumented, then no further evidence is needed.
But short of that, its a bit murky.
Spratlen said for him, not having a drivers license and not speaking English would not be enough to constitute probable cause. But the threshold can vary among officers.
Felice said, Its hard to say what that bright line is. ... Peoples circumstances are different.
If the arrestee is facing felony charges, he or she is booked into jail, and officials there contact ICE.
If the charge is a misdemeanor, then the police officer who stopped the person makes the report to ICE.
If ICEs database finds no history or record, then the arrestee likely will be allowed to go on his or her way with a summons to appear on the misdemeanor charge.
Spratlen said that for someone to be let go, he or she must have valid identification. This doesnt guarantee the person is legal in some states, such as New Mexico, it is possible to get a drivers license without producing a birth certificate or passport.
If the query shows the person previously has been deported or is wanted, then the individual will go to jail.
Through the system
La Plata County Sheriffs Office Capt. Michael Slade, who oversees the jail, said officials there contact ICE about anyone who is booked and is foreign-born.
Were not trained on knowing if theyre here legally or if theyre here illegally, he said.
Once contacted, immigration officials have 48 hours to determine what they want to do with a detainee.
Some of those determined to be undocumented will stay to face their local charges. Others will go to the states nearest immigration court in Aurora.
The La Plata County jail is the only facility in the Four Corners authorized to hold people for ICE. The review process took more than a year, and the contract with the agency was just signed in June.
Their standards are pretty tough, Slade said.
Detainees being held for ICE wear red uniforms instead of orange or stripes like the rest of the jail population.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribes jail, which used to hold detainees for ICE, no longer does.
Interviews with immigrants, advocates and officials all support the view that immigration authorities here arent hunting down illegal immigrants.
We dont go out and search out people just because they are in the country illegally, Landgren said. Oftentimes, the way they come into contact with us is because they have committed some kind of violation and a local law-enforcement agency will intervene.
She said many people dont realize that ICE enforces much more than just immigration law. Her investigators she declined to say how many also are working cases of narcotics trafficking, child pornography, customs fraud and others.
The immigration piece, its a very important part of what we do and it is only part of what we do, she said.
This doesnt mean that otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants can rest easy. ICE does investigate local employers believed to be using undocumented labor.
And theres another factor that leaves them exposed.
Under state law, its illegal to drive without a license, but residents cant get a drivers license without proving lawful presence in the country.
Without a drivers license, illegal immigrants cant register their vehicles, which also is required by state law.
Soto said Colorado has set up a vicious circle whereby immigration status a civil matter under U.S. law is converted into a criminal matter under state law.
Theyre creating this whole problem to make it look like these people are criminals, he said.
Felice, the police chief, said that outside the forces obligation under state law, his officers arent worried about a persons status.
When were trying to solve crimes, we need witnesses, and we want people to come forward and say they witnessed an event without fear that were going to be challenging their immigration status, he said.