Guest Columns

TANCREDO: COLORADO'S CRIMINAL ALIENS

Are we deporting enough criminal aliens?

Three recent deaths in Aurora have focused the spotlight of public controversy on the huge gaps in immigration-related law enforcement. The victims’ families and the citizens of Colorado want to know why Francis Hernandez, the unlicensed driver and illegal alien who has been arrested and charged with manslaughter, was still on the streets after 16 arrests in the Denver metro region since 2003.

The same question was asked in Denver in 2005, when police officer Donnie Young was shot to death by an illegal alien who had been in Denver traffic court with a Mexican driver’s license only three weeks before he killed Officer Young. The same question was asked in 2004, when a young man on a motorcycle was killed in Thornton by an illegal alien in a hit and run. The same question has been asked after deaths in San Francisco, Newark, Austin, Phoenix, Los Angeles and a hundred other places.

There probably are thousands of criminal aliens like Francis Hernandez on the streets in Colorado, individuals who are in the country illegally but speak good English and are never examined by federal immigration authorities until they commit a violent crime. Thus far, Colorado’s lawmakers have enacted only wink-wink reforms that have not made a dent in the problem.

Gov. Bill Ritter’s statement following the Aurora deaths that the solution lies in a federal “comprehensive immigration reform” is laughable and disgraceful. Are we supposed to believe such crimes will disappear if we give illegal aliens legal status through another amnesty? Somehow, I doubt that is the solution Colorado citizens have in mind when they demand to know why a career criminal like Hernandez wasn’t sent home to Guatemala after his first arrest.

Why didn’t that happen? First, the federal criminal alien deportation system was designed to identify and deport only violent felons, not “small fish” like Hernandez who know how to stay under the radar until they commit a crime that gets public attention. Second, the Colorado office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is woefully understaffed to handle the volume of foreign-born suspects taken into custody who need a face-to-face interrogation regarding their immigration status. Third, Denver and many other cities continue to follow “sanctuary city” policies that make the area attractive to illegal aliens. Until we turn off the magnets that attract illegal aliens, including lax enforcement of existing state laws, the problem will grow.

The Denver regional office of ICE deported 5,594 illegal aliens from Colorado in 2007, and more than 4,500 immigration holds have been placed on jail inmates so far in fiscal 2008. That’s the good news. ICE is unquestionably doing a much better job of identifying these criminals
than in the past. But consider the bad news:

• An equal or larger number of illegal aliens was arrested and booked into Colorado’s local jails but were released back into our communities because they never were tagged for immigration holds.

• Illegal aliens who are convicted of minor crimes — or who were plea bargained down to minor crimes by local prosecutors — and then given probation instead of jail time are never examined by federal ICE authorities for possible deportation, regardless of their criminal records.

• Across Colorado, thousands of illegal aliens are stopped and given traffic citations for driving without a license or driving under the influence, but — like Hernandez — are not referred to ICE for scrutiny of their immigration status.

• An illegal alien arrested for a misdemeanor offense who makes bail within 24 hours has less than a 10 percent chance of ever being questioned by an ICE agent about his immigration status. The national office of ICE admits it has the manpower to cover only 10 percent of the nation’s 3,100 local jails, and in Colorado only one or two county jails has anything close to round-the-clock scrutiny of new jail bookings of foreign-born suspects.

• For example, according to federal Department of Justice data, in 2006 El Paso County was reimbursed for incarcerating 248 illegal aliens who served a total of 6,399 “inmate days.” But only 15 of those had ICE holds placed on them for eventual deportation. The others were released back into the community.

• No government agency in Colorado — not the regional ICE office, not the Attorney General, not the Department of Public Safety — knows how many illegal aliens cycle through the state’s county jails because no one is counting.

There are several measures that state and local authorities can adopt if we want to find solutions. What we can’t do is to continue to blame Washington, D.C. and ICE when we are not taking steps available to us. It’s time for action, not buck-passing.

Denver native Tom Tancredo, Republican, is retiring from Congress at the end of his term after 10 years representing Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. Tancredo also served in the Colorado House of Representatives and as president of the Golden-based political think tank the Independence Institute. Part two of this article will appear in The Statesman next week.