Colorado joins growing number of states banning local jails and prisons from partnering with ICE to hold immigration detainees

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A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., July 8, 2019.

Updated 3:27 p.m.

Colorado jails and prisons are now banned from signing new agreements to hold immigration-related detainees on behalf of the federal government.

The policy was the focus of a bill Gov. Jared Polis signed into law Tuesday. HB23-1100 restricts state or local governments from entering into contracts with private companies that use public facilities, such as jails, for immigrant detention.

Local governments and law enforcement agencies will also soon be barred from making agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house people for federal civil immigration proceedings.

Only two counties in Colorado, Teller and Moffat, currently have active agreements with ICE to house federal detainees. Both will now have to end their contracts to comply with the new law. 

“Colorado law enforcement shouldn’t automatically detain someone just for their migration status,” said Democratic state Sen.. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, one of the bill’s main sponsors.”It just didn't make sense to us.”

Colorado joins at least five other states that have restricted state and local government contracts for ICE detention. 

The new law doesn’t impact the immigrant detention center in Aurora, which is owned and operated by GEO Group, a private company. GEO contracts directly with the federal government. Its facility is the largest of its kind in Colorado.

Prior to the new measure, local governments could provide overflow space for federal detention. Those contracts can be lucrative for governments and private subcontractors, netting hundreds of dollars from ICE per inmate each day.

Some sheriffs, including Teller County’s, have argued that holding inmates in jail at ICE’s request is part of their job. Supporters of the ban on contracts, including immigrant advocates, argue the deals often lead to state and local jails holding people who aren’t convicted of a crime. Critics of detention centers as a whole say they are often understaffed and dangerous. 

“We’re not going to have Colorado jails be used to house immigrants who have simply come here looking for a better life,” said Tim MacDonald, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. “If ICE feels the need to do it, they’re going to have to go out and do it on their own.” 

The ACLU sued Teller County in 2018 to try to stop its partnership with ICE, but a district court judge ruled in favor of the Teller sheriff’s agreement in February. The ACLU appealed the decision, and the case remains active despite the new law. 

Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell declined to comment on Polis signing the new law. He also would not share how many inmates the county currently houses under its agreement. During testimony at the State Capitol this spring, he defended the safety of his county’s facilities and arrangement with ICE, arguing that it helped streamline immigration proceedings. 

“ICE is going to continue to arrest people, but they’re not going to have the ability to stay here in Colorado and closer to their families,” Mikesell said. “This legislation will victimize immigrants.” 

With fewer places to house detainees in Colorado, ICE will have to transport all inmates to its Aurora facility or move them out of state, said John Fabbricatore, a retired field office director for ICE in Denver. 

“That will cause massive problems if you make an arrest anywhere on the Western Slope or in Southern Colorado,” he said. “This law doesn’t look at the safety concerns of moving someone in a vehicle during a severe storm or with an agent that might be tired from working so many hours.” 

Fabbricatore said ICE and local governments need the authority to detain people with criminal convictions.

“Your gang members, your drug traffickers, your human smugglers – those are people who we do not want to release,” he said. “And if we don’t have space for them in Colorado anymore, we’re just gonna move them somewhere else.” 

Colorado’s new limits on immigrant detention are the latest efforts by Democrats looking to limit state collaboration with ICE as a whole. In 2019, Polis signed a ban on civil immigration detainers.

Lawmakers have also put restrictions on the types of economic incentives local governments can give to private prison companies that contract with ICE. 

Supporters of the changes say they help immigrant communities feel safer in Colorado. 

“If you've got community members that are feeling like law enforcement is going to detain them just for their immigration status, then they're not going to want to participate or work with or even be near law enforcement,” said Jaquez Lewis, one of the Democratic sponsors behind HB23-1100. “That’s not the kind of state Colorado is.” 

Colorado’s new law banning detention contracts takes effect in January 2024.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis as a state representative.