Colorado’s immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have temporary legal status or those who have applied for asylum could soon work as armed police officers in the state.
Gov. Jared Polis signed HB23-1143 into law on Thursday, allowing the state’s Peace Officers Standards and Training board to establish rules for people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and asylum seekers to become certified peace officers or reserve officers. That means police and sheriff’s departments can change their firearms policies to allow eligible immigrants employed as law enforcement officers to carry guns and allow those eligible to attend training academies.
The new law, backed by Republicans and Democrats, is set to take effect 91 days after this year’s legislative session ends.
“We have a number of areas of workforce shortage across our state,” Polis said at the signing. “There’s a number of ways that we’re stepping up to address this… We’re expanding that this year including law enforcement, firefighting …”
Aurora interim Police Chief Art Acevedo told The Denver Post Thursday that he supports allowing DACA recipients to work as police officers, especially amid a nationwide shortage of people applying for law enforcement positions.
People with DACA status were brought to the U.S. as children and have been vetted for the Barack Obama-era program. They live and work legally in the U.S. Those applying for police positions would still have to go through the same rigorous process as everyone else, including required background checks, polygraphs and completion of various tests, Acevedo said.
Acevedo, who immigrated with his family from Cuba as a young child, recalled the story of a teen he met years ago in Austin, Texas, through the department’s explorer program. The student, Christian Mendoza, wanted to become a police officer after he graduated but was not eligible because of his status, so he ended up getting hired at the police agency but not in a capacity where he would carry a gun.
Although Acevedo advocated for such a policy change to allow people with DACA to apply for policing jobs in Texas, similar legislation wasn’t adopted. Now, he says he wants to call that former student and encourage him to apply in Colorado.
“It’s not about nation of origin,” Acevedo said. It’s instead about integrity and dedication to the job and mission, he said.
Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat, has been working with the state attorney general’s office for more than a year on the bill after someone with DACA contacted her about wanting to work as a police officer. They looked at what other states have done and found that Connecticut has already allowed people with DACA status to work as police starting in 2021.
Not only does this allow people with DACA to achieve their job goals, Kipp said at a House Judiciary Committee meeting for the bill, but it also will help diversify police forces.
GOP Rep. Ryan Armagost of Berthoud signed on as a sponsor after talking to the police chief in Greeley, who he said couldn’t hire “probably the best applicant he ever had” because of the candidate’s citizenship status. Armagost told committee members that he served with DACA recipients in the military who were able to carry firearms, so he was glad to extend that to police agencies as well.
“They serve in every other capacity when they choose a life of public service,” Armagost said. “They can be firefighters, they can be EMTs, first responders, but law enforcement was cut out of that because of the issue of being able to be issued a firearm and ammunition not only in the performance of their duties but as a POST-certified peace officer (while off duty).”
Colorado was able to pass the new law because of a federal exception allowing the practice. Although law enforcement leaders worried about what would happen to their officers if the federal government decided to remove the exception, the state law’s proponents have said that as more states and police departments rely on immigrants in these positions, it would become more difficult for the federal government to end it.
The bill passed 31-4 in the Senate and 46-18 in the House. For Senate Minority Paul Lundeen, a Colorado Springs Republican, his no vote was a close call.
“We should do everything we can to encourage people to become fully vested members of our community,” he said. “This is an example of how policy can dilute the motivations to become fully vested — do the work to become a citizen.”
But immigration advocates have long argued that there is no clear pathway to citizenship for people with DACA — a program with an uncertain future.
GOP Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, opposed the bill because he said he couldn’t get over the fact that noncitizens would be arresting citizens in Colorado for violations, calling it “just one line too far.” The solution, he said, is the federal government needs to act on immigration.
Reporter Seth Klamann contributed to this story.
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