- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

DENVER — When a Colorado state trooper pulled over a van crammed with 15 illegal aliens headed for Iowa City, it looked like their plans to visit the Hawkeye State had come to a screeching halt.

Instead, Trooper John Lopez released the van and its occupants after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent told the Colorado State Patrol that he didn’t have the staff to detain the admitted illegal aliens.

Immigration officials now say that the decision Thursday to let them go was based on a miscommunication about the van’s location. Even so, the release has fueled frustration over what critics see as the federal agency’s inability to handle the unabated flow of undocumented workers.

“What I’ve picked up on is that ICE seems to be understaffed, underfunded and doesn’t seem to be able to handle the magnitude of the problem we have here in Colorado,” said Fred Elbel, co-director of Defend Colorado Now, which plans to place a measure on the November ballot aimed at discouraging illegal immigration.

“Local police have told me on numerous occasions that they’re reluctant to call ICE, because often ICE can’t do anything,” Mr. Elbel said.

ICE regional spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency is “reviewing what happened and wants to correct this,” but he defended its overall record of handling calls from local authorities.

Immigration officials have had their hands full as illegal aliens pour into the country for the spring planting season: On Monday and Tuesday, 113 illegal aliens were picked up on Colorado highways after their vehicles rolled over or skidded off the highway during a snowstorm. The Justice Prisoner Alien Transportation System is in the process of returning them to Mexico, Mr. Rusnok said.

“I’m not saying that it never happens, that we always respond to these calls, but look what happened on Tuesday,” he said. “We had all these rollovers, and we responded to each of those and took custody of all illegal aliens in a timely manner.”

On Thursday, the state patrol contacted the ICE office in Brush, Colo., when Trooper Lopez discovered the 15 illegal aliens after a traffic stop. Their 2000 Chevy Astro was traveling on Interstate 76 about six miles east of Sterling in northeast Colorado.

But the ICE agent thought the trooper said Interstate 70, more than 100 miles away in Denver, Mr. Rusnok said.

“The agent thought they said I-70, and it would have been a manpower problem. He didn’t have the guys to drive all the way over there,” Mr. Rusnok said. “What he should have said was, ‘You know, I don’t have the manpower for this right now, why don’t you call the Denver office.’”

Mr. Rusnok added that he didn’t know exactly what the agent told the state patrol.

“I don’t know if he told them to let them go, or he didn’t have enough manpower, but it’s essentially the same thing,” he said.

Colorado State Patrol Master Trooper Ron Watkins attributed the miscommunication to ICE. “There’s no way our trooper is going to say I-70 when he’s on the I-76,” he said.

After the agent said he couldn’t send officers to the scene, the state patrol could do nothing more.

“[Trooper Lopez] told them where he was at, and they said they couldn’t respond. We don’t have the jurisdiction or authority to arrest them. That’s Immigration’s job,” Trooper Watkins said, referring to ICE.

The state patrol encounters about 500 illegal aliens each week on Colorado highways, but ICE agents don’t always respond, he said.

“They don’t always handle it,” Trooper Watkins said. “It’s an overwhelming number. It not only ties up ICE; it ties up us, too.”

The state legislature took on the issue Monday when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved 6-0 two bills to crack down on human smuggling and trafficking. The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Peter Groff, would make such crimes felonies.

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