Colorado passes bill restricting county jail contracts with ICE

Colorado lawmakers took another step Thursday toward further restricting state and local involvement in civil immigration detention, sending HB23-1100 to the governor’s desk.

If Gov. Jared Polis signs it into law, the bill would, by Jan. 1, 2024, prevent state and local government entities from entering or renewing any contracts with federal immigration enforcement to hold people suspected of civil immigration violations, and it would prohibit state and local governments from opening or in any way facilitating new immigration detention facilities run by private companies.

The Colorado Senate passed the bill on third reading Thursday on a mostly party-line vote after stripping an amendment brought by Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts that passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee and would have exempted jails that already have these intergovernmental service agreements with ICE, known as IGSAs, from terminating their existing contracts early.

The contracts are used to house immigrants in county jails when immigration facilities are at capacity or not easily accessible, and the jails are paid per inmate by the federal government. Only two Colorado sheriff’s offices — in Teller and Moffat counties — have active contracts with ICE to hold detainees in their facilities. Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell told lawmakers Monday that his county’s contract with the federal agency was indefinite.

The Teller and Moffat county sheriff’s offices did not return requests for comment.

The bill’s sponsors have said this legislation furthers the 2019 state law limiting both cooperation with ICE and holding people in jail based solely on a civil immigration request.

“It’s my belief that profit-motivated contracts between ICE and local law enforcement agencies, local jails should be prohibited and we’re working to ensure that immigrant families are able to trust in local law enforcement, are able to know that their local jails are not collaborating and doing ICE’s job for them,” said sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Multiple states have passed similar bills banning such contracts, including New Jersey, Washington, California, Illinois and Maryland.

ICE’s Denver Field Office declined to comment on pending legislation, but John Fabbricatore, a former director of ICE’s Denver office, called the bill “dangerous both for ICE and the detainees” in an interview.

He argued that it poses risks when detainees have to be transferred to the ICE immigration detention facility in Aurora immediately, especially because the Denver Field Office covers the entire states of Colorado and Wyoming, thereby forcing officers to travel, even at later hours and in poor weather conditions, to move people to Aurora.

And with more asylum seekers being sent to detention centers across the country, including the Aurora facility, and taking up bed space, Fabbricatore said he believes the bill will lead to Colorado residents being detained in other states, something advocates of the bill have refuted.

Bill designed to keep families together

Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder County Democrat, said the legislation is about keeping families and communities together, and the bill only applies to people accused of civil immigration violations, not criminal.

“As we know, the detention dehumanizes individuals detained and sometimes their health is even put at risk. As a pharmacist, I’ve been watching some of the stories that have been coming out about that,” she said at the committee hearing. “Forced separation from parents, even when brief, can have severely detrimental effects on children, triggering anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and psychological distress. And this really reinforces the need to keep Coloradans out of detention with their families.”

Mikesell and Teller County commissioners testified at the Senate committee hearing this week and in a House committee earlier this year opposing the bill. Mikesell is currently facing an appeal in a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado over his 287(g) contract with ICE that allows deputies to perform immigration duties in the jail.

He told lawmakers that Teller County has had its contract to hold immigrant detainees for ICE since 2000 — separate from the 287(g) program — and recently, the jail negotiated its rate for reimbursement from the federal government to $93 an inmate per day.

Mikesell argued in favor of keeping the IGSA programs, saying that if they’re dismantled, immigrants will instead be sent to other states for detention if the Aurora facility run by private prison company GEO is full. Plus, he said, the state has more oversight over county jails.

However, Colorado State University assistant professor of social work Elizabeth Kiehne told lawmakers that evidence suggests that “arrests occur in lockstep with available beds. There’s a bed-filling phenomenon in which the more capacity it has, the more arrests they make.”

That scenario has played out in Illinois, according to Mark Fleming, the associate director of litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Illinois. ICE officers now prioritize arresting people with serious prior criminal convictions, he said.

Kiehne also shared research with lawmakers from a project with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition detailing immigrants’ experiences with immigration enforcement. She noted that the incarceration of large numbers of immigrants didn’t start until the 1990s and has continued to grow, spurred by fear, politics and financial profit motives.

“A very painful 15-year process”

Multiple immigrants shared their own experiences and that of their families in support of the bill during the hours-long hearings.

Jorge Zaldivar Mendieta, who recently won his immigration case and was granted legal status, told Senate committee members in a letter about his detention in the Teller County jail for three months in 2008 when the Aurora facility didn’t have space. He was picked up for a suspected immigration violation after being involved in a single-car crash in Jefferson County.

“The fact that there was an IGSA contract between ICE and these counties resulted in me being detained for a traffic situation, which began a very painful 15-year process for my whole family with ICE,” he wrote. “If IGSA did not exist, they would have let me go with my family or under supervision to attend my court and follow what was asked of me.”

He said he was scared being housed with serious criminals, and the whole ordeal caused harm to his family’s health, and emotional and financial well-being. That’s why he supported this bill, he said, so other families don’t have to go through it, too.

This bill would not change the immigration detention center run by the GEO Group in Aurora, although the company has called the legislation part of lawmakers’ “long-standing, politically motived and radical campaign to attack ICE’s contractors, abolish ICE and end federal immigration detention by proxy.”

But it does prevent the state from opening future private-run detention centers and it limits where immigrants can be held.

Nayda Benitez of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, told lawmakers that this kind of collaboration with ICE creates fear within immigrant communities, and she was constantly worried about her parents’ safety when El Paso County had an agreement with ICE to hold immigrants, particularly after her aunt was deported. As Colorado’s immigrants drive through Teller County, they face the same types of concerns, she said.

Ultimately, said Democratic Rep. Naquetta Ricks of Aurora and a bill sponsor, this legislation is important so everyone feels welcome, especially as “Colorado has moved into a place where it’s more humane.”

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