The intention, Denver officials said, was benevolent.
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The Denver Sheriff’s Department set out to hire scores of deputies last year to lessen the burden on its staff and cut millions in overtime.
It advertised for prospects, and included U.S. citizenship as a requirement.
By this past spring, it had hired 200 deputies.
The Justice Department did not congratulate the agency – instead, it slapped Colorado’s largest sheriff’s department with a $10,000 fine and a host of steps it must take to address what was described as discriminatory hiring.
In a summary of the settlement on its website, the Justice Department said that in insisting on citizenship, the Denver Sheriff’s Department violated an anti-discrimination provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that forbids employers from hiring only U.S. citizens except in cases where it is mandated “by law, regulation, executive order or government contract.”
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The Justice Department said that the opportunity to work for the department should be open to anyone with the necessary skills who is authorized to be employed in the United States. That could be a legal permanent resident who has not naturalized, for example, or someone on a temporary visa who has a work permit.
In a statement, the Denver agency said it would abide by the ruling.
“The Denver Sheriff Department maintains its commitment to treat all people with dignity and respect, and is proud to have one of the most diverse workplaces in Colorado,” said Denver Sheriff's Department spokesman Simon Crittle.
“While we didn’t commit this violation intentionally, we accept responsibility and are taking steps to clarify policy and amend language in hiring documents,” he added.
Many police departments around the country with positions they say are difficult to fill have sought to cast a wider net for job prospects by considering legal immigrants as well as others who have work permits.
Chicago and Hawaii police departments accept job applicants who have a work permit, according to USA Today.
The fine against the Denver agency was the target of criticism on social media, including on the Facebook page of the group “Blue Lives Matter.”
Critics said that law enforcement agencies at local, state and federal levels routinely make citizenship a requirement of those they employ, and that the nature of the job should always make it a condition.
Many government jobs are open to non-citizens who are in the country legally, such as legal permanent residents, commonly known as green card holders.
Some law enforcement agencies hire non-U.S. citizens, and require them to obtain citizenship within a specific time frame.
Denver would have been within its rights to require citizenship if a local or state public agency allowed it.
On its website, the Justice Department commended the Denver Sheriff’s Department for being cooperative and agreeing to take steps to address the hiring controversy.
“We commend the Denver Sheriff Department for its cooperation and commitment to removing unnecessary and unlawful employment barriers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Eliminating this unlawful citizenship requirement will help ensure that the Denver Sheriff Department hires the best and most qualified individuals to protect and serve. The entire community will benefit from these reforms.”
Beyond the fine, the sheriff’s department must review applicants who were disqualified because they lacked citizenship and consider them for future openings if they meet other criteria.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told FoxNews.com that hiring people who are not permanent residents and have temporary visas does not seem feasible.
“They’re making a long term investment, paying for training, for someone who might be ineligible to work in a few years,” Mehlman said of the police departments.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told USA Today last year that while he supports the idea of opening up hiring at police departments to non-citizens who are in the U.S. legally, he worried about security risks of police officers who have only work permits.
"We're handing over a gun and a badge to somebody whose background we don't really know a lot about," Krikorian said.