County Loses Opening Fight in Legislative Battle Over Illegal Immigrant Detentions

“Anti-Teller Bill” Moves Forward; Agreement With ICE in Jeopardy

Trevor Phipps

Political sparks ignited again in a big battle for Teller County’s right to keep its current agreement with the feds, allowing law officers to detain illegal immigrants at the jail in Divide.

Unfortunately, the county fell short in the latest legislative fight, but not by much, with the commissioners and sheriff succeeding in swaying several key Democrats over to their side.

But in the end, a state panel allowed a measure to move forward by a single tally that would kill their current arrangement with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). It is now headed for a full vote by the state House.

This is just round one of what could become a fury of legislative skirmishes for county leaders.

With the beginning of the 2023 Colorado legislative session, state lawmakers have already drafted approximately 600 bills.  And one bill, decided last week by a state legislative committee, has been dubbed the “Anti-Teller Bill.”  Local leaders say the bill directly attacks policies that only Teller County has in place.

The new House Bill 23-1100, entitled “Restrict Government Involvement in Immigration Detention,” moved to the bipartisan state House Judiciary Committee last week, passing the first hurdle. Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell and all three county commissioners went to the state capitol to testify against the legislation. According to county leaders, the bill is directed towards ending the county’s 287g agreement they have with ICE.

All four county officials explained to the committee why the program should stay in place, and they were able to swing two Democrat voters to vote “no” on moving the bill forward. But the bill passed through the committee by one vote, and it is headed to the House floor to get voted on by state representatives.  And with this body heavily favored by Democrats, who have tended to favor this type of legislation, the illegal immigrant detention agreement Teller has with ICE is definitely in jeopardy.

 Still, based on comments made at a county commissioners’ meeting last week, elected leaders are still optimistic.

“The bill came out of committee by only one vote, which is unbelievable, said  Teller County Commissioner Dan Williams. He stressed that all four county officials will continue to fight the bill as it makes its way through the next stages.

In 2019, state legislators passed HB 19-1124 (Protect Colorado Residents From Federal Government Overreach), which outlawed law enforcement officers from arresting or detaining people based on a civil immigration detainer. The law came about after the county won a lawsuit against the ACLU the year before regarding the county holding detainees on ICE-sanctioned holds.

The ACLU then sued the county again in 2019, and used the newly passed law for a reason why the sheriff’s 287g agreement was unlawful. A trial was held for the lawsuit last month, and the judge has yet to release his decision.

What Does the Proposed Bill Aim to Do?

While the lawsuit makes its way through the court process, Democratic lawmakers have drafted a bill that local leaders say would essentially end the county’s 287g partnership with ICE. The bill was sponsored by Democrat State House Representatives Naquetta Ricks from Arapahoe County and Lorena Garcia of Adams and Jefferson Counties. Democrat State Senators Julie Gonzales from Denver County and Sonya Jaquez Lewis representing Boulder, Broomfield, and Weld Counties are also listed as sponsors of the bill.

The summary of the bill states that currently ICE “contracts out a portion of its detention capacity to state and local governments.” The municipalities can then subcontract with prisons or immigration detention facilities that are owned by private entities to house or detain individuals for federal civil immigration purposes.

The bill plans to change this practice and prohibit the state or local governments in the state from pursuing practices related to detaining people for reasons related to immigration starting on Jan. 1, 2024. The new bill will prohibit local governments from “entering into an agreement for the detention of individuals in an immigration detention facility that is owned, managed, or operated by a private entity.”

The bill will also outlaw selling any government-owned property for the purpose of establishing an immigration detention facility, or paying any costs related to the construction or operation of a privately owned detention facility. The last part of the bill states that receiving any payment related to the individuals in a facility or giving financial incentives to a facility will also become illegal if the bill passes.

Local Officials Make Appeal to State Lawmakers

During the judiciary committee hearing, Mikesell along with the three county commissioners pleaded their case to the representatives in the committee. More importantly, they explained why the 287g partnership occurred in the first place. The sheriff has said in the past that his office entered the partnership to give his detention deputies another tool to deal with criminal suspects who have entered the country illegally.

The county officials told the lawmakers that keeping suspects in the detention center on an ICE hold can sometimes be something that benefits them. “It is detention, not prison,” Williams said. “They come there and they medical and mental health evaluations along with three meals a day. It is also legal services, because a lot of times they don’t have access to that. And, they get to meet with their families and go through the process. All Jason (Mikesell) is doing is following the law as the sheriff.”

Plus, the sheriff has argued that the agreement allows the county extra protection in its campaign against illegal drug operations.

This latest bill is one of several that the county officials will be fighting at the state capitol over the next coming months. At the same  time, they are supporting several key measures too (see related story).