Immigrants increase law officers’ duties

Michelle Balleck

More immigrants equal more crime, local law enforcement officials say. Not because Hispanics are more likely to commit crimes, but a growing population of any ethnicity means an increased likelihood of criminal activity.

Illegal immigrants who are arrested also create costly bills as they sit in jail awaiting deportation.

“Immigration has played a big role and cost the taxpayers a lot of money in this county,” Routt County Sheriff John Warner said. “They’re costing us an arm and a leg.”

Warner and Craig police Chief Walt Vanatta said they’ve seen more Mexicans on the wrong side of the law lately because of their growing presence in the community.

“It’s just an added group that wasn’t in the equation in the past,” Warner said.

What also wasn’t part of the equation in the past is a language barrier that can arise when police try to investigate crimes involving non-English speakers. That is a concern for area law enforcement officials.

As a result, the Craig Police Department has increased its use of interpreters to conduct interrogations and explain rights to suspects. A couple of officers are fluent in Spanish, but the department relies heavily on interpreters in the office and courtroom to make up the difference.

Warner said his office spends $3,000 per officer on Spanish courses. Four are fluent.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to teach everyone, because these arrests come in day and night,” he said.

Undersheriff Jerry Hoberg said the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office had to print a jail handbook in Spanish to accommodate the changing needs. Other than that, he said his force has seen minimal impact from the growing Hispanic population.

Officials said they do not target Hispanic residents; their increased response is because of the public’s perception of them.

“We see them a lot in the parks in the summer,” Vanatta said. “Some people have called and complained that they were afraid to go because of the number of Hispanics.”

Behind bars

But sometimes, the general public helps law enforcement officers track down illegal immigrants.

Lt. Dean Herndon, Moffat County Jail administrator, said fast food restaurant employees are tipped off by one person ordering 41 sandwiches, for instance. Officers then can follow the vehicle and wait for the driver to break a law.

“They can’t do anything until that vehicle does something wrong,” Herndon said.

Warner cited one instance where a U-Haul truck was pulled over for weaving on U.S. Highway 40. While searching, the officer found 19 undocumented immigrants in the back “in some pretty grotesque conditions.”

After the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, picked up the immigrants, they called Warner and said the passengers tested positive for chicken pox.

All 11 officers, including Warner, who had never had the disease, had to be checked by a nurse. Luckily, no one tested positive in the office, and no one has contracted tuberculosis, which Warner said many immigrants carry.

“That is very scary,” he said. “These people are carrying diseases we haven’t seen in 50, 60 years.”

When illegal immigrants are apprehended, Herndon said he can hold them for as many as three days, unless they are being held on other charges.

“ICE has to give us the authorization to hold them and how long to hold them,” Warner said.

Deportation depot

A blue holding shed was built in Craig after officials pressured ICE to construct a place to house immigrants waiting for deportation. But the Moffat County Jail also typically houses two inmates a month strictly on deportation charges.

“We don’t have a lot come through here,” Herndon said.

But the Routt County Jail does.

According to the facility’s records, 68 people were held for deportation in 2004. By the first week of June this year, the number was at 42.

Warner holds inmates at the Routt County Jail at a price tag of $55 to $62 a day per inmate until they are sentenced, which can take as many as three months. That’s a bill the taxpayers pick up, and it’s money the county has never recouped through the defendants’ court costs.

Warner is not happy with how the process works. He said ICE only accepts convicted criminals, which means no action is taken to stop illegal immigrants until those people break the law.

“Why aren’t we continuing to go out and contact these individuals before they commit these crimes?” Warner asked.

He’s not sure how many of the illegal immigrants who come through the jails get deported.

And although law enforcement officers have a duty to investigate illegal immigrants, it’s not a top priority, Vanatta said.

“We have no authority to deport them,” he said. “We have to turn them over to federal officials, and if they have a mandate not to do anything with a particular group, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

In fact, even if police contact an immigrant who doesn’t have proper documentation, it’s unlikely any legal action will be taken, he said.

“The odds are slim to none that you’ll be deported if you’re a law-abiding resident and you’re here making an honest living,” he said.

Part of the CPD’s five-year strategic plan is to break down cultural barriers and help Spanish speakers understand that officers’ duties are to protect and serve — regardless of nationality.

Andy Smith contributed to this story.

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