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DOJ demands to see policies on immigration

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County was one of 23 jurisdictions across the country that received letters from the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday demanding that they turn over policies related to immigration enforcement.

The DOJ in the letter to County Commission Chairman Steven Michael Quezada threatened to withhold future law enforcement-related grants and make the county pay back previous grants if it failed to produce documents that would show whether the county is “unlawfully” restricting the information it shares with federal immigration authorities, according to a DOJ news release.

Similar letters were sent to other states, counties and cities that have so-called sanctuary city policies, including California, New York City, Chicago and Denver. Bernalillo County was the only entity in New Mexico to receive it.

The letter gave Bernalillo County a Feb. 23 deadline to turn over the requested records. If the county fails to do so, the DOJ said it may require the county to pay back certain law enforcement-related federal grants dating back to fiscal year 2016.

Bernalillo County, which operates the Metropolitan Detention Center, passed a resolution in March last year designating the county as immigrant-friendly.

“I’m going to stand my ground,” said Quezada, who sponsored the legislation, which passed on a 4-1 vote. “I’m protecting children, good families and good people.”

The resolution prohibits the use of county money or personnel to ascertain anyone’s immigration status or to apprehend anyone based on immigration status, unless required to do so by law.

That means, among other things, that the county jail won’t hold inmates who otherwise would be released just because Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests that the inmates be detained so their immigration status could be checked.

Following such requests has led to judgments for civil rights violations in New Mexico and around the country.

A federal judge has already granted final approval to a settlement San Juan County is closing, which will award $2,000 – plus additional damages – to each of nearly 200 people who were illegally detained at the county jail, said John C. Bienvenu, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. That case was brought in 2014 after the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in the Four Corners area kept inmates on non-immigration charges in custody at the request of ICE.

The letters sent Wednesday mean that local jurisdictions could lose federal law enforcement-related grant money, which is usually used for training and equipment, if they don’t turn over documents related to those practices. Local governments in 2017 had to sign a certification agreeing to work with ICE in their applications for Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grants.

Bernalillo County was expected to receive about $61,000 in such grants in the current fiscal year. Albuquerque, which did not receive a letter from the Justice Department on Wednesday, is expected to receive $438,000, according to previous Journal reports.

Quezada said he was not going to change his position at the threat of losing federal grant money.

“We’ll just have to figure it out,” he said. “If we have to re-look at the budget and look at how we’re going to make it work, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

In August, County Commissioner Wayne Johnson proposed legislation that would have rescinded the county’s immigrant-friendly status. Johnson’s proposal, which failed by a 4-1 vote with only him voting in favor, would have required the county to:

⋄  Provide access to Department of Homeland Security personnel to meet with detainees so they can determine the detainees’ immigration status.

⋄  Require MDC to provide at least a 48-hour notice of the pending release of a detainee identified by Homeland Security.

⋄  And, upon indemnification of liability by Homeland Security, honor a request to hold a detainee for no more than an additional 48 hours.

“We should obey the law and obey the terms and conditions of the grants we’ve entered into,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson said he doesn’t think deputies should enforce immigration laws, but he said the county should communicate and work with federal immigration agents.

“These (grants) aren’t operational dollars, typically; they are usually training and equipment dollars,” Johnson said. “But at a time when we have exploding crime rates in the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be throwing away federal funds based on a commitment to be violating federal law.”

Albuquerque officials didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether they thought the city was at risk of losing such grant money.

City Councilors Pat Davis and Klarissa Peña introduced legislation last week that would prevent ICE agents from entering nonpublic city property, including the Prisoner Transport Center, without a warrant.

The city, under former Mayor Richard Berry, gave ICE agents office space at the Prisoner Transport Center.

The letters from the DOJ drew a sharp rebuke locally and nationally. A group of mayors from across the country boycotted a planned meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon.

Locally, Marian Mendez Cera, a community organizer with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, said the county’s policies were in line with federal law.

“Our communities will continue to use every tool at our disposal to resist Trump’s bullying tactics and to defend our local policies which promote public safety, uphold civil rights, and are conducive to keeping our families together,” Mendez Cera said in a statement.

The DOJ has repeatedly threatened to deny millions of dollars in grant money to communities that refuse to comply with a federal statute requiring information-sharing with federal authorities, as part of the Trump administration’s promised crackdown on cities and states that refuse to help enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in Wednesday’s news release that policies like those in place in Bernalillo County put communities at risk.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” he said in a prepared statement. “We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement – enough is enough.”

Many cities have been openly defiant in the face of the threats, with lawsuits pending in Chicago, Philadelphia and California over whether the administration has overstepped its authority by seeking to withhold grant money.

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