Teller County Jail Hits Political Iceberg

Commissioners and Sheriff Lose State Bid For Maintaining ICE Detention Facility

Rick Langenberg

Despite recent court victories in an ongoing fight with the American Civil Liberties Union, the  Teller County Sheriff Department’s ongoing partnership with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) for holding prisoners suspected of civil  immigration violations at the jail in Divide has hit a political iceberg.

And unless the county can get a reprieve from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the jail will become officially de-ICED by 2024. In essence, this means that Teller deputies can no longer assume the role as federal immigration agents in detaining inmates they suspect of immigration violations and in holding them at the jail while they go through the proper proceedings with ICE authorities.

The jail has served as the sole ICE-sponsored and sanctioned facility in rural Colorado.  The Teller sheriff’s department has become the only law enforcement agency in the state that has this arrangement with ICE.

Sheriff Jason Mikesell has described the partnership as a win/win for the feds and the county, giving Teller a leading edge in its battle against extensive marijuana grow operations and in the processing of other dangerous drugs, while assisting ICE in temporarily detaining suspected illegal immigrants.

The county commissioners delivered the bad political news during their regular meeting last week during a period that has almost become known as the “Doomsday Legislative Update.” For the  most part, the commissioners outline bills they are fighting against.

Commissioner Dan Williams confirmed that HB23-1100 (Restrict Government and Involvement in Immigration Detention) has been approved by the state legislature, and now awaits the signature of the governor. “We have asked for a veto (by the governor),” said Williams.

Williams and his peers outlined the frustration they experienced in lobbying for keeping the Teller jail as an ICE detention facility.  He said the commissioners and Sheriff Jason Mikesell have gone to the state capitol on numerous occasions to testify, and were making some definite inroads.

A recent amendment, proposed by Senator Dylan Roberts, a Democrat, would have given the county, in essence, a grandfathering provision, allowing the law to move through, but to permit current ICE government facilities to operate, such as the one in Divide. Roberts’ amendment, which sought to allow government entities that have existing contracts to maintain these arrangements, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But a full vote by the state Senate killed the deal, and may have frozen the ICE partnership. The House then followed suit in a vote that pretty much occurred with partisan alignments.

“Right now, Colorado taxpayers are helping fund ICE facilities and detention,” said bill sponsor Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, according to an article in Colorado Politics. “This runs counter to the values of an overwhelming majority of Coloradans and it’s time to put an end to it.”

“Allowing these intergovernmental service agreements to continue creates fear and distrust in community,” said another bill sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, while speaking against the proposed amendment during a final hearing on the bill, based on a Colorado Politics report. “We are working to ensure that immigrant families… are able to know that their local jails are not collaborating and doing ICE’s job for them.”

Dealing with a “False Narrative”

These views are staunchly opposed by the county commissioners, who have accused the bill supporters of creating a “false narrative.” During their frequent testimony and appearances at hearings, the commissioners say they tried to overcome this perception and demonstrate the harm they could produce for the families of those suspected of immigration violations with the proposed anti-ICE legislation. “What they have said we are doing was just not true,” said Williams at last week’s meeting.

And as he has stated before, Williams questions the role of the state government in nixing agreements between county entities and the federal government.

In a previous interview with TMJ, when this issue arose, he went further, noting, “This bill is wrong and would mark the first time that the state of Colorado would move to restrict a county government from entering into a legal contract with the federal government to help enforce the law of our land…We have relationships with DEA, FBI, Federal Marshals, the Department of Defense and others and this is a dangerous precedent.”

Moreover, Williams and his fellow commissioners note that by taking this action, the state is actually jeopardizing the people they supposedly want to help: those suspected of illegal immigration offenses. With the loss of Teller’s facility, they say the stage could be set for them to be deported out of state and to be further away from their families, causing much hardship.

Similar sentiments have been echoed by Mikesell. In a recent video outlining problems with this bill, the sheriff said, “What they (state lawmakers) are creating is more of a lawless epidemic.”

The commissioners say they plan to continue to lobby against the bill and made a plea for their case with the governor.

Williams expressed cautious optimism, saying the board has good relations with Polis, even though they don’t agree on many issues politically. Williams actually played a role in helping the governor with his bid for a land use reform package to help generate more affordable housing (see related story).

But still, the commissioners face an uphill battle. In some ways, HB23-1100 represents an extension of action taken by the state in 2019, in drafting legislation that became commonly known as the anti-Teller bill.

On the upside, the commissioners reported that the 2023 legislative session is nearing an end, but they noted that nearly 300 remaining bills are still up for grabs.