Immigration bill before Wyoming Legislature stirs controversy

2011-01-23T23:45:00Z 2011-01-24T06:15:50Z Immigration bill before Wyoming Legislature stirs controversy

By JOE O'SULLIVAN

Casper Star-Tribune

The Billings Gazette
January 23, 2011 11:45 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. - Law enforcement officials around the state say a proposed illegal immigration bill, similar to the one passed last year in Arizona, is an unfunded mandate and would be difficult to enforce.

One of the bill's prime sponsors says that is just too bad.

Known as House Bill 94, the bill allows for legal Wyoming residents to challenge local and state officials in district court if it seems that those officials are not fully enforcing federal immigration laws. If an official is found to be not enforcing those laws, local or state governments could be fined anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per day that enforcement is not in effect.

"I don't think that makes much sense to me," said Casper Police Chief Tom Pagel. "To suggest that an individual is going to bring a suit ... that's ridiculous."

Pagel said his department, budgeted for 90 officers, would not have the resources to actively enforce federal law.

"Do I have enough people that I would send them out to find illegal aliens?" he said. "No."

Law enforcement in Natrona County do not come into contact with many undocumented immigrants, he said.

In 2010 there were 7,008 arrests in the county, according to Pagel. Of those, 189, or about 2.7 percent, were referred to federal officials as involving individuals who were possibly violating immigration laws.

In 2010, the Laramie County Sheriff's Office made 3,952 arrests, according to Gerry Luce, spokesman for the office. Of those, 42, or about 1 percent, were referred to federal immigration officials.

Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said local law enforcement does not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

That authority falls to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"A lot of people think that the immigration laws . . . we can enforce those," said Kozak. Cheyenne police have a zero-tolerance policy for undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime, he added.

If an undocumented immigrant is detained by local law enforcement, those authorities will call ICE, according to Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen. ICE will then come to take that person into custody, Whalen said.

Rep. Pete Illoway, R-Cheyenne, the bill's prime sponsor, brushed off those concerns when asked about it Friday afternoon.

"Oh well," said Illoway. "Oh well, tough."

Those who object to the bill are welcome to voice their objections at the Monday morning hearing where it will be discussed, he added.

Illoway told the Star-Tribune in early January that he drafted the bill to be "an Arizona clone."

Last year, Arizona made it a crime to be in the country illegally; under state law, local police have to question people about their immigration status and demand to see their documents if they are suspected of being in the country illegally.

The law also requires employers in the state to use E-Verify, a system established by the federal government to grant computer access to government data on Social Security and illegal immigrants hired in the U.S. The information is used to double-check on the information provided by new employees. The law allows the state to suspend the licenses of businesses found to employ undocumented workers - 10 days for a first offense, and permanent revocation for a second - and businesses are held liable if contractors they use hire undocumented workers.

The federal government has initiated a lawsuit to declare the Arizona law unconstitutional.

Whalen said that if HB94 is passed, the Teton County Sheriff's Office would need more resources to help enforce the law.

"I think that this kind of a thing could affect us from an economic standpoint," he said. "I do believe that would impact the jail, housing, feeding (inmates) ... a whole host of things would come to play."

"It's an unfunded mandate, or it would turn into an unfunded mandate," Whalen said. "I guess I am opposed to local law enforcement being mandated as a remedy for the failings of the federal government."

While Whalen was unable to provide data on how many undocumented workers the department encountered last year, he said the number has recently shrunk.

"It used to be more when the economy was better," he said. "We still run across them. We certainly have our share of illegal aliens or undocumented aliens."

Critics of the Arizona law claim it targets Hispanics. Immigrants in Teton County come from all over.

"It's not just Hispanics; we've also had Eastern European issues and Canadians that we've deported," Whalen said. "They come (to Teton County) to work."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, which prosecutes federal crimes in the state, handled 90 cases involving illegal immigrants last fiscal year, according to John Powell, press officer for the office. That is down from 106 in 2009, but both numbers are up substantially from prior years, he said.

Cases are referred to the office from ICE. Powell said there are several reasons why the case numbers are smaller than the number off holds placed by Natrona County in 2010. It could turn out that some subjects are actually not in the country illegally, or that they have warrants for their arrest in another state and are sent elsewhere, he said.

If the bill passes, Pagel says the Casper Police Department will continue with its current law enforcement policies.

"I would not do things any different than I am right now," Pagel said.

Contact Joe O'Sullivan at joe.osullivan@trib.com or 307-266-0639.

 

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