Outgoing governor Bill Ritter has created a small furor with the announcement Tuesday that Colorado will join what’s called the Secure Communities initiative.  It’s a federal program that allows local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people arrested in the state.  The move has immigrant rights groups up in arms.

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News that Colorado is joining the Secure Communities initiative brought a score of protesters out to the Capitol steps Tuesday morning.  Facing a bank of television cameras, Reverend Anne Dunlap with the United Church of Christ urged other religious leaders to oppose the program.

DUNLAP: "Secure Communities does nothing but target communities of color to terrorize them.  And as persons of faith we find this to be unconscionable."

Here’s what Dunlap and others at the protest object to: the Secure Communities program allows local law enforcement to compare the fingerprints of anyone they arrest against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement database.  If ICE records show that the suspect has overstayed a visa or been arrested for immigration violations before, federal officials can ask officers to turn that person over for deportation after their local criminal charges are sorted out. 

Julie Gonzales with the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition warns the program could make it harder to police immigrant communities because witnesses may be more afraid of reporting crimes.

GONZALES: "We want to make sure that this is something that actually reflects the real needs of Colorado."

Many of Colorado’s police chiefs and sheriffs apparently think it does; their organizations endorsed joining Secure Communities. The program is touted as helping the ICE focus on deporting so called 'criminal aliens.'  But statistics show that of the roughly 64,000 people deported since Secure Communities started in 2008, only one in five was arrested or convicted of a serious violent crime. 

Colorado held out for several conditions before signing on to the program.  Among them, ICE agreed to supply detailed quarterly reports on what happens to Coloradans tagged by Secure Communities and to allow the state to leave the program down the line. Governor Bill Ritter says he also got ICE to agree not to pursue deportation against victims of domestic violence who’ve been wrongly arrested.

RITTER:   "Those concerns were things that were actually raised in conversations I’ve had with different people in the immigrant community and I feel very good about the conversations we’ve had back and forth with officials in Washington DC and in the state regarding our regarding our request to think about these concerns."

Immigration rights groups, though, say the concessions Ritter obtained are toothless and won’t prevent ICE from using the program to identify people for mass deportations.  The governor objects to that idea, saying that because Secure Communities checks the fingerprints of anyone arrested, it actually makes the deportation process fairer.

RITTER: "This is a way of ensuring that the efforts of law enforcement aren’t part of trying racially stereotype people and then to deport them based upon discrimination."

Ritter leaves office in a week, but says that has nothing to do with the timing; ICE agreed to Colorado’s conditions in the middle of December and Ritter says he made his decision over the holidays.  Ritter says he didn’t talk with governor-elect John Hickenlooper before joining the program. 

As the governor spoke to press in the Capitol lobby on Tuesday, a score of protesters gathered to watch.  When he finished Judith Marquez of Thornton shouted a response.

MARQUEZ:  "Thank you, Ritter, for your legacy.  Our communities are going to suffer, but it doesn’t matter right?  Because you live in your privilege, you don’t care.  You go to your good home, you go to your good schools, but we have to suffer here.  It’s not right."

Marquez and others vowed to fight the adoption of Secure Communities, possibly with help from allies in the legislature.  But Ritter questioned how much impact that effort could have.  He notes that while Secure Communities is an optional program right now, it’s expected to be mandatory for states by 2013.