Colson: Garfield County sheriff walks a fine line on immigration |

Colson: Garfield County sheriff walks a fine line on immigration

John Colson
Hit & Run

The thorny problem of immigration, as a political issue and a concept familiar to millions of people who want to live somewhere other than their native countries, undoubtedly is a tough nut to crack.

Just ask Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who penned an opinion column in a local paper last week that implied that if he had his way, he would like to be out there busting “alien gang members here illegally” (too often used as code to describe all immigrants, legal or illegal) as well as the operators of cannabis shops (he did not distinguish between medical and recreational) because they all are in violation of federal law.

His main point, though, dealt with immigration law, under which the apparent problem is that he can’t do what he would like to do.

And that, Vallario wrote in the March 4 Glenwood Springs Post Independent, is because he is constrained by statute to enforce only local and state laws, not federal.

I found the opinion piece both illuminating and somewhat worrisome.

It was illuminating because I had no idea that Vallario was such a student of the differences between enforcement of federal and state laws by his office, and because he went to great pains to identify constitutional restraints, amendments and other legal provisions that prevent him from doing what he clearly would like to be doing, and what is safe to assume some of his constituency would like him to do.

It was worrisome because he seemed to be arguing that if someone would change the federal and state laws governing his actions, or there were somehow a great upheaval in how we enforce our laws that left him a little more free to follow the dictates of his own philosophy and conscience, he would be out there busting immigrants and other violators of federal law.

Interestingly, nowhere in his dissertation did Vallario mention the possibility that someone targeted by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency may in fact be innocent of any wrongdoing and improperly subject to arrest and deportation.

But in that oversight he inadvertently highlighted the core of the arguments used by immigration advocates, attorneys and others — there are times, some would argue many times, when ICE is wrong, either wrong in a legal, formalized way or wrong in a moral sense.

The latter category, of course, is a subjective one. One person’s definition of moral imperatives governing law enforcement can easily be another person’s idea of being soft on crime.

But take a case I read about recently, in which a woman from El Salvador was taken from a hospital where she was awaiting surgery on a brain tumor and dumped into a detention cell, cut off from contact from the outside.

The woman, Sara Beltran-Hernandez, 26, had been in ICE custody for more than a year after being arrested while trying to get into the U.S. without documentation, in November 2015.

She reportedly had no criminal record, was not a “gang member” and, in fact, told authorities she was seeking asylum because a relative in El Salvador was gang-affiliated and she, Sara, was worried she might be killed for dating a policeman in her home town.

She reportedly collapsed late last year while in detention, and was diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumor that required surgery, which got her out of detention and into a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to a couple of news accounts, she was re-arrested after a doctor concluded that the tumor was at a stage that was not immediately life-threatening and did not require immediate surgical intervention, which some heartless cipher in ICE interpreted as justification for pulling her out of the hospital and putting her back in restraints in an ICE detention center.

The internet has been full of stories from late February, when she was yanked out of the hospital, but there were no follow-ups that I could find and rely on.

Now, in his opinion piece, Vallario indicated he is not authorized by law to do what President Donald Trump and ICE would like him to do, which is act on ICE’s behalf with regard to rounding up illegal immigrants and shipping them back where they came from.

But he also indicated that he would act to fill in for ICE when the feds needed it.

My question about all this to Lou is, if a similar case had developed in, say, Glenwood Springs, and ICE was unable to get to the hospital as quickly as they might like, would Lou head over to Valley View Hospital, pick up the offending undocumented patient, and house him or her in the Garfield County Jail until ICE could get there to take over?

In other words, does he believe ICE acted appropriately, or was the move “heartbreaking, inhumane and illegal,” as opined on the Common Dreams website?

In his opinion piece, which seemed to be written to placate some of his more hard-core constituents who would like to see tougher anti-immigration policies from his department, he gave one compelling argument for not acting as a local ICE surrogate — it might open up the county and other jurisdictions to lawsuits by anyone detained illegally.

That could amount to a lot of money and makes a handy cop-out for local law enforcement types looking for a plausibly deniable escape from enforcing the zanier aspects of Trump’s anti-immigrant pogroms.

In the end, it seems that Vallario was trying to find ways to distance himself from the more overzealous activities of the federal immigration activities of ICE, while at the same time signaling his agreement with the underlying ideas that fuel Trump, ICE and others who blame immigrants for everything that has gone wrong with this country and feel that rounding them all up and sending them home would solve all our problems.

That’s what I call walking a fine line.

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