Gradual phase-in eyed for immigrant fingerprinting

Colorado will participate in a controversial program designed to nab the most dangerous illegal immigrants, but don’t expect local law enforcement agencies in the region to be using it just yet.

That’s because the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau that oversees the program known as Secure Communities is only operating it for a few jurisdictions to start, and then only on the Front Range.

In announcing that Colorado would join 35 other states that use the program, which matches fingerprints of jailed illegal immigrants who have committed the most serious of crimes, Gov. Bill Ritter said Tuesday it would give law enforcement one more tool in doing their jobs.

Ritter has come under fire from Republicans in recent months for not joining the program sooner. But the governor said he was trying to negotiate improvements to it that addressed such issues as protecting domestic violence victims and requiring ICE to report back on how data from the program is used.

“Governor Ritter’s focus here was to provide some input and have influence on a national dialogue regarding a program that is currently voluntary, but which is intended to be mandatory in a couple of years,” said Evan Dreyer, the governor’s press secretary. “We saw some opportunity to improve the program, and have been working with ICE to make those improvements.”

Thing is, though, ICE may or may not want other Colorado communities to start using the program right away because it’s still being implemented in the state, said Lance Clem, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

Clem said ICE is interested only in larger communities that have the preponderance of illegal immigrants who are being booked into local jails for serious crimes. For now, those are Denver, Arapaho and El Paso counties.

While some law enforcement officials believe the program will help protect people from dangerous felons who shouldn’t be in the nation, others don’t much care for it.

Hans Meyer, policy director for the Denver-based Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the program not only will open the door to racial profiling, but Ritter’s push for protections of domestic violence victims don’t go far enough.

“The proposed modifications don’t address the real substantive issues in the program,” Meyer said. “Basically, Secure Communities is a dragnet immigration program masquerading as a community safety program.”

He said while the program is designed to screen people convicted of serious offenses, ultimately it will be used to find anyone here illegally.

While Meyer said immigrants shouldn’t be in the nation illegally, kicking them out in such a fashion would only lead to other problems, such as splitting up families, frightening immigrants from trusting police to report crimes and deterring migrant workers from coming here.

“It’s going to pull in people that it shouldn’t, and it’s going to hurt community policing,” he said. “The federal government is thrusting this program on the states. It doesn’t allow localities to control if and how they participate in this program.”

Ultimately, all jurisdictions in the nation will use the program when ICE makes it mandatory in 2013, said Carl Rusnok, spokesman for the federal Department of Homeland Security. Most if not all counties in the state, though, will be able to use it over the next few months, he said.

Heather Benjamin, spokeswoman for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, said Sheriff Stan Hilkey believes the program would be beneficial in determining the legal status of suspected illegal immigrants, but said the department has not received word from either the state or the federal governments about using it.

Rusnok said Homeland Security will contact Mesa County after ICE puts together a deployment plan that will roll all 64 Colorado counties into it one by one. When that plan is done, ICE agents will meet with each city and county that operates a jail to explain the program and how it works.

Colorado law already requires law enforcement agencies in the state to verify the legal status of anyone they’ve arrested and notify ICE if they are here illegally. Once implemented, the program would do that automatically.


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