Pitkin County sheriff candidates want to avoid illegal alien checks

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The three candidates for Pitkin County sheriff have deep-seated differences on many aspects of law enforcement, but they agree they don’t want their deputies on the prowl for illegal immigrants.

In the Squirm Night debate Wednesday, all three candidates fielded a written question from an audience member who asked, “Do you feel the sheriff’s department should investigate any of the obvious illegal workers [who] are in Pitkin County?”

Pitkin County Undersheriff Joe DiSalvo replied that immigration policy is one of the biggest failures by the federal government and one that Washington should be pressured to address.

“I do not think it’s my responsibility to check green cards,” DiSalvo said.

There is a federal agency in place to deal with entry into the country “and they are failing miserably in their job,” he said.

Candidate Rick Magnuson, an Aspen police officer, said he agrees with DiSalvo that immigration is a federal responsibility. He applauded a judge’s decision last month that prevented much of Arizona’s new immigration law from taking effect. America doesn’t want a “hodgepodge” of different states’ laws applied to immigration, he said.

Magnuson explained that Aspen police officers, and other agencies, already check as standard procedure the residency status of some suspects.

“When they are arrested for certain crimes we will call ICE,” he said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “But I don’t think we should be investigating people out on the street because I know that will lead to racial discrimination.”

Candidate Rick Leonard, a retired lawman with 22 years of experience, said all law enforcement agencies are waiting for guidance from the federal government on how to handle immigration issues.

“Right now we’re dealing with the problem the way we have for a very long time,” he said.

DiSalvo noted his great-grandparents were immigrants who were subjected to prejudice but “did what they had to do” and managed to buy a house and raise a family. Without drawing a distinction between legal or illegal immigrants, DiSalvo made it clear he feels there is a place for foreign workers in the Roaring Fork Valley economy. He said it is understandable that people want to come to America to avoid persecution in their native lands or to seek better economic opportunities in the United States.

“I happen to really believe this community has a unique work force,” DiSalvo said, “and there is room for immigrants to work here.

“I do think a good part of the people who come here [to] make our beds and do the work that a lot of people in this community just aren’t willing to do – I think we have enough work to accommodate that,” DiSalvo said.

Local law enforcement agencies aren’t responsible for checking the residency or immigration status of people they arrest for crimes, but they do work closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

During bookings of arrestees, facilities like the Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield county jails routinely ask inmates if they are foreign-born. Jails regularly send ICE information on their new arrivals.

Based on that information, ICE may investigate a case further, or place a “hold” or “detainer” on an inmate, explained ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok. A detainer means if the inmate is released for any reason from incarceration by the local jurisdiction, they will be turned over to ICE rather than released, he said.

If a detainer is placed on an inmate, it means they have been “identified as a deportable alien,” Rusnok said.

ICE’s Criminal Alien Program is responsible for “identifying, processing and removing criminal aliens” incarcerated in prisons and jails, according to the agency’s website. ICE tries to secure an order for removal prior to the inmate completing a sentence.

There are millions of illegal aliens and limited resources, so ICE has to set priorities, Rusnok said. Deportable aliens with convictions for the most serious crimes – murder, rape, kidnapping and others – are targeted. Once they serve their time in the United States for their crime, ICE will attempt to get them deported immediately upon completion of their sentence, Rusnok said.

Deportable aliens convicted of non-aggrevated felonies, usually a lesser crime, can appear before a federal immigration judge and make an appeal to stay in the country.

During the period from Oct. 1 to May 24, the latest statistics available, detainers have been placed on 4,945 inmates held in prisons and jails in Colorado and Wyoming, Rusnok said. The statistics aren’t separated for the two states. Their deportation status won’t be known until their cases in the states are resolved.

Also during that time, 3,305 inmates from the two states were deported after disposition of their cases with local jurisdictions. The number of aliens deported with criminal convictions was 2,376, according to ICE’s tally.

– Scott Condon