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Down the ICE hole

As the county plays cost-and-benefit game, immigration office plans creep along


Robert Barron helps immigrants who are facing possible deportation. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Robert Barron helps immigrants who are facing possible deportation.

The process is vaguely circular.

It starts with complaints that too many illegal immigrants are breaking the law and filling El Paso County's jail.

A cry arises: Bring in the feds!

That happens, albeit slowly, with plans for a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Colorado Springs.

Meanwhile, the state's ICE presence grows, with high-profile raids in Loveland and elsewhere. These raids and a growing reluctance to let foreign prisoners go free lead to more detainees shuffling toward deportation.

ICE's 400-bed detention facility in Aurora can't hold them all. Counties can step in to help and ICE pays them $62.40 per detainee, per day.

Cash-strapped El Paso County strikes it big, pulling in $190,000 in November. Sheriff Terry Maketa says an ICE contract to hold more than 100 of these detainees each day could net $3 million in the coming year. Facing a $1 million budget cut for 2009, Maketa says, that contract will allow him to continue staffing two wards representing 140 beds in his 1,600-person jail.

And there you have it. What started partly as a jail-capacity problem has brought a solution in which inmates are cash cows.

Some see it as unsustainable. Ann Allott, a Denver-area immigration attorney and author, points to a fundamental problem: An estimated 20 million illegal immigrants are in the United States.

"You can never build enough jails to hold them all," she says. "People need to realize the system is broken."

After U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn introduced a bill in August 2007 authorizing spending to build an ICE office in Colorado Springs, he said the office was needed to "adequately monitor immigration activity." Last January, his office announced funding had been approved and the office would open in early 2009.

But the opening date seems to have slid backward, and details have become murky.

Mixed signals

Carl Rusnok, a Dallas-based spokesman for an ICE region that includes Colorado, says he will have to check into things before responding to basic questions about the Springs office. Answering by e-mail, he writes that it will open next summer. On other details, he is vague, declining to give an address for the office or to explain what agents here will do.

"As discussed, when operational, the agents may handle any mission areas covered by the ICE Office of Investigations," Rusnok writes, referring to the agency's Web site for more. (Rusnok did not reply to a second round of e-mailed questions.)

For what it's worth, ICE's Web site is actually quite impressive. A flashy box gives the skinny on four recent ICE accomplishments, including the Houston arrest of a gang member and illegal immigrant suspected of killing two women in Mexico.

ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which sprung to life after Sept. 11, 2001. It is actually an amalgam of old border-security functions rolled together with chunks of other agencies that handled customs investigations and immigration issues.

Though removing illegal immigrants was expected to be among the local office's functions, Maketa says, it now appears the office will focus on investigations.

Contrary to Rusnok's e-mail, its location is no secret. In August, Lamborn announced the General Services Administration, responsible for getting the office ready, had picked a building at 415 E. Pikes Peak Ave. to house it.

Lamborn wrote ICE in October raising concerns about progress. But this week, Lamborn's office released a Dec. 12 response from Peter Edge, ICE's acting director, explaining the agency is "pleased to be expanding our presence in Colorado" and that the office is on schedule to open this spring.

Busy at the jail

ICE's fingerprints are clearly visible on the list of inmates in the county's jail.

Second from the top of the list, Fernando Aceves faces multiple felony charges and a $50,000 bond, which could make it hard for him to post bail even if he did not face an ICE hold. While Aceves' case goes through the judicial system, the hold order will keep him in jail, with the bill going to El Paso County the federal government only pays for those going through deportation proceedings.

A few names down, Jose Aguilar-Chavez falls in that latter category, with ICE paying $62.40 each day he stays here.

On Dec. 1, the jail was holding about 100 inmates on ICE holds and getting payments for around 120 being held under the contract with ICE.

Maketa downplays the contract's impact on crowding. Without it, he says, jail staff would have to be cut, giving him less flexibility to house suspected criminals and ICE detainees.

It's unclear what impact the local ICE office will have on the jail. Robert Barron, a local immigration attorney, suggests a bigger factor could be the economy. National news stories have highlighted a growing number of illegal immigrants returning home. Barron says he sees signs of it locally, with businesses catering to Latinos closing as the local construction industry goes stagnant.

"If you want to see immigrants pack up and leave," Barron says ruefully, "you only have to have economic conditions like we have now."

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