Immigration law a thorny issue for federal, Weld County, Greeley law enforcement
March 2, 2017
In Greeley City Council
At the Greeley City Council’s work session Tuesday night, Councilwoman Rochelle Galindo, who represents Ward I of Greeley, proposed the city create a resolution that the city stands in solidarity with all its residents regardless of their immigration status. The ensuing discussion erupted into a shouting argument between herself and Greeley Mayor Tom Norton. Galindo cited Tuesday’s incident at the courthouse in her arguments.
By the time Greeley police officers arrived at the courtyard outside the Weld County Courthouse on Tuesday morning, the fight had already broken up.
The scuffle had been between plain-clothed Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and a man alleged to be in the country illegally, who had appeared in court on felony drug charges. When he stepped out of the building after his hearing, the federal officials arrested him.
Greeley officers were just as surprised as the man himself.
"We did not have any idea (ICE) was going to be there," said Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner.
The incident has stoked fears of deportation among immigrants in Greeley. It also has left city officials and local law enforcement to fight the spread of rumors about the likelihood of immigrants disappearing off the streets.
Later, Garner said, the police department contacted the federal agency and asked for notification before its officers made similar arrests in the future. He said he doesn't remember anything like this happening since he's been in Greeley.
The story is Greeley's version of the drama playing out on a national level.
In the wake of President Donald Trump's Jan. 25 executive order condemning "sanctuary jurisdictions," a slew of questions arose about whether local or federal government is responsible for enforcing immigration law, and how those two entities work together.
Garner and Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams said their departments do not treat illegal immigrants different from any other person they encounter on a daily basis. Garner said his officers don't ask suspects if they are legal citizens, and Reams, whose deputies run the Weld County Jail, said his office does not screen inmates to weed out illegal immigrants.
"There's been nothing from the Trump administration that changes how we do business," Reams said.
The reason for that has to do with the differences between federal and state law.
Being in the country illegally is a federal crime, and local law enforcement — such as Greeley police officers and Weld deputies — are not tasked with enforcing federal law. It's the same reason local law enforcement does not arrest people who are using marijuana legally under Colorado state law, even though marijuana use is illegal at the federal level. There is no state statute against being in the country illegally. Trump's executive order did not change that.
He added the sheriff's office does not block ICE officials from entering the jail in their efforts to find illegal immigrants. *All inmates' information is forwarded to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which in turns forwards it to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, who can interview suspected illegal immigrants and take them into federal custody.
Garner said his department has cooperated with the federal government before, when it asked for help in finding illegal immigrants suspected of felonies within the city's limits. He also said he keeps in touch with the regional director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, checking in weekly to see if the Greeley Police Department is required by law to change its policies.
Rochelle Galindo, a Greeley City Councilwoman who represents Ward I in northeast Greeley which has a high population of immigrant families, said Garner has attended multiple community events at which many of her constituents asked him if they would be arrested and removed if they were in the country illegally and had a brush with law enforcement or appeared in court. Garner assured them they would not be.
It's why the fight in the courthouse's shadow Tuesday has caused a stir.
"I want to emphasize that this hurts our credibility as local leaders," said Galindo. "It's a really big … overreach to local control and our authority."
It also poses safety threats. Onlookers believed they were witnessing a fight between civilians, Galindo said. The incident was initially called into the police as a fight between civilians, although officers later learned they were dealing with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers, Garner said. Had Greeley police officers arrived while the scuffle was ongoing, officers might not have known they were dealing with plain-clothes agents.
Yet Immigrations and Customs Enforcement offices across the country don't always notify local law enforcement of their presence or their intentions, according to Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for the agency.
"We may not always inform a local police department of our arrests," he said. "There may be a variety of reasons it's not expedient at the time."
Rusnok cited the enormous number of operations the agency is involved in, and said often there is no time to notify local law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Galindo and Garner said they have had to do their best reassuring Greeley residents they have nothing to fear from local police officers.
"We can't solve crime if people don't talk to us," Garner said. "If you're a victim, we want to help you."
* This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: When inmates are booked into Weld County Jail, their information is transmitted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which in turn is provided to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency. This fact was incorrect in a story in Friday's Tribune.