New Mexico joins private prison debate - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico joins private prison debate

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, talks about private detention centers holding immigrants during a committee meeting Monday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Some New Mexico lawmakers expressed support Monday for reining in private prison growth in the state – or doing away with private prisons altogether – amid a roiling national debate over housing immigrant detainees.

During the meeting of an interim legislative committee at the Roundhouse, several legislators suggested New Mexico could follow in the steps of California, which has enacted laws blocking the expansion of private prisons run for immigrant detainees and empowering state officials to inspect them.

“If we don’t take action as a Legislature, we are committing a criminal act,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, during Monday’s hearing, which drew a crowd of roughly 200.

But other lawmakers questioned the state’s options in overseeing the two private detention centers with current federal contracts to hold immigrant detainees in New Mexico: the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral and Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued California to try to overturn some of its immigration-related laws, arguing the state is interfering with federal matters.

“I think we need to figure out what authority we have before we go down that road,” said Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican.

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s burgeoning debate could play out in a state that’s relied on private prisons for at least two decades. Overall, about half of New Mexico’s inmates – or about 3,500 – are housed in private prisons, which is among the highest rates in the nation.

The exact number of immigrant detainees held in New Mexico is not clear. A state Corrections Department spokeswoman said the agency does not track the data, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond Monday to questions about the two detention centers.

An attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Immigrant Law Center said the capacity of the Otero and Cibola County detention centers is around 1,100 inmates apiece.

‘I was treated like a criminal’

Immigrants and asylum seekers from Mexico, Uganda, Congo, Nicaragua and other countries that spent time in the detention centers gave lawmakers a grim description of their living conditions.

Carlos Medrano, a Mexican national who spent time in the Otero County Processing Center, said corrections officers treat detainees with a lack of respect and do not provide health care for them.

Other detainees said they were given expired food, not allowed to go outside for days and handled like “cows at a dairy.”

“I was treated like a criminal,” said Joselin Mendez, a transgender woman who fled Nicaragua in an attempt to escape repeated abuse in her home country and was later housed in the Cibola County detention center.

Marcela Diaz, left, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, and Elvira Amador were among a crowd of about 200 at a Monday meeting of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee also invited Ronald Vitiello, the acting director of ICE, and the wardens of both privately run immigrant detention facilities to testify at Monday’s hearing.

Both wardens declined the invitations but offered to give lawmakers a tour of the detention centers, and the ICE official never responded, said Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the committee.

Ann Morse, director of the immigrant policy project at the National Conference of State Legislatures, did attend. She said state legislators nationwide are having to make immigration-related policy decisions because of outdated federal immigration laws.

In addition, immigrant advocacy groups have raised concerns about abuse in the privately run detention centers and the difficulty of finding capable legal representation.

“ICE and the federal government have shown time and again they are unwilling or unable to ensure human rights in the detention facilities,” said Adriel Orozco, an attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

Democrats return donations

The issue of immigrant detention centers has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, largely due to President Donald Trump’s now-halted policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally.

Several prominent New Mexico Democrats have in recent weeks returned campaign contributions they received from private prison companies or donated them to nonprofit groups.

But some lawmakers whose districts encompass the private prisons said Monday that the prisons provide jobs that would be difficult to replace.

“The village of Milan is really small, and economically we are really hurting,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcón, a Democrat. “We have to figure out a way to keep people employed and alive.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat, said it was disrespectful for ICE officials not to attend the hearing.

He also said migrants should not be treated like criminals for coming to the United States.

“These people are fleeing extortion, murder, rape, torture,” he said. “I can tell you I would do the same thing in a heartbeat.”

The committee could vote later this year on whether to endorse any prison-related legislation for next year’s 60-day session, which will begin in January.

Amanda Ordonez, 2, and her mother Veronica Velazquez, from Santa Fe, were among around 200 people attending a meeting of the New Mexico legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee in Santa Fe on Monday. The meeting was to talk about private prisons in New Mexico detaining immigrants. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Home » Journal North » Journal North Recent News » New Mexico joins private prison debate

Insert Question Legislature form in Legis only stories

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

ABQjournal can get you answers in all pages


Questions about the Legislature?
Albuquerque Journal can get you answers
Email addresses are used solely for verification and to speed the verification process for repeat questioners.
Ready for Rihanna? A look at five songs that ...
ABQnews Seeker
Journal Staff WriterI am not sure ... Journal Staff WriterI am not sure if you have heard, but there is a football game this ...
New Mexico basketball: Five Alford and Nevada takeaways from ...
New Mexico fell to Nevada in ... New Mexico fell to Nevada in a 77-76 men's basketball heartbreaker on Tuesday night, thanks to last-second heroics from Kenan Blackshear.  With the win, ...
Alford, Nevada break Lobo hearts yet again
ABQnews Seeker
Kenan Blackshear's final-second shot pushed Nevada ... Kenan Blackshear's final-second shot pushed Nevada past the UNM Lobos and continued Steve Alford's dominance over his former team.
From piñon to petrichor: 4 aromas that define Albuquerque ...
ABQnews Seeker
A group of Las Cruces fifth ... A group of Las Cruces fifth graders recently pitched a bill that would name the scent of roasting green chile the official state smell. ...
Editorial: With 3 strikes already, will new PRC work?
From the Editorial Board: Latest sign ... From the Editorial Board: Latest sign of dysfunction is commissioner's recusal from PNM-Avangrid merger, should it resurface.
Editorial: State ordered workers back, but forgot offices
From the Editorial Board: Why the ... From the Editorial Board: Why the urgency to send state workers back to unready offices?
To Lobo basketball fans, Alford remains a provocative figure
After a hearty chorus of boos, ... After a hearty chorus of boos, cheers and whatever comes in between, the crowd finally hushed in anticipation of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' A voice ...
Boys prep basketball: Holland leads as Los Lunas wins ...
Boys' Basketball
Travis Julian had done the math. ... Travis Julian had done the math. The short-term math, sure, but far more pressing on his mind was a specific long-term calculation. 'I haven't ...
Complaint lodged against energy advocacy group
ABQnews Seeker
The conservative advocacy organization Better Together ... The conservative advocacy organization Better Together New Mexico accused environmental group New Energy Economy of potentially illegal fundraising activity.