El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says if federal immigration authorities won't pick up undocumented immigrants and deport them, he'll do it himself.
Under a plan Maketa is working on with U.S. immigration officials and the Mexican Consulate, sheriff's deputies would be authorized to transport undocumented Mexican migrants from the El Paso County jail in Colorado Springs to the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas -- a 640-mile trip south on Interstate 25.
From there, deputies would hand the migrants over to Mexican authorities.
Maketa says his office contacts U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to notify them when the jail is releasing undocumented prisoners. Yet the agency often fails to pick up the inmates within 72 hours, he says.
"We release them to the streets," he adds.
Maketa does not track how often immigration officials fail to show up.
However, he says the number of undocumented immigrants in jail has been rising in recent months and the jail already is on the brink of overcrowding. In mid-April, 63 undocumented inmates were in the jail. On certain days this summer that number has hit 100, and averages 77 on any given day. Most of them hail from Mexico, Maketa says.
Migrants make up about 5 percent of an overall prisoner population that this week hit 1,457.
Although the Sheriff's Office has no authority to conduct deportation proceedings, Maketa is proposing that migrants sign waivers and give up their rights to federal deportation hearings, agreeing to be voluntarily removed from the United States by sheriff's deputies.
Maketa claims the waivers will benefit migrants who sign them because they won't get banned from the United States. In contrast, a deportation ruling can result in a seven-year ban.
Danielle Short, human rights director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization in Denver, calls the proposal unfair because it focuses only on Mexican nationals and not all undocumented immigrants.
"The assumption is that all migrants have brown skin or are from Latin America," she says. "That's wrong. ... It just sounds like a bad idea. It sounds politically motivated."
Maketa's plan is the latest effort by a county politician to force federal immigration officials to focus on El Paso County.
Three months ago, county commissioners incensed advocates for migrants with a letter urging the federal government to do more to enforce immigration laws. The letter highlighted the May 8 killing of a Denver police detective, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who escaped to Mexico.
The advocates accused commissioners of using the issue to portray migrants in a poor light for political gain.
Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jim Bensberg, who authored the letter, now is lobbying with Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) to establish an immigration enforcement office in Colorado Springs. It would be similar to existing offices in Pueblo and Denver.
Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha says the senator wants to help the county get tough with undocumented aliens.
"Illegal immigration is bad for the country, and illegal immigrants should be dealt with as lawbreakers," she says.
De Rocha adds that Allard has yet to hear from federal officials, but is hopeful that funding for Colorado Springs will be provided in a federal budget anticipated to be finalized by October.
Immigration officials declined to comment on both Allard and Maketa's proposals.
-- Michael de Yoanna