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Bernalillo County affirms immigrant-friendly status

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

About once a week, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent visits the Bernalillo County jail, moves through the security perimeter and sits down at an open work station in the records department.

He gets access to a Metropolitan Detention Center database that includes Social Security numbers, addresses and the place of birth for inmates – all without presenting a warrant.

But that is set to change.

A resolution the County Commission unanimously approved to cheers on Tuesday night reinforces the county’s assertion that it is an “immigrant-friendly” community with language that effectively prohibits that practice.

Introduced by Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, the resolution’s purpose is “strengthening Bernalillo County’s non-discrimination policies,” and that includes denying federal immigration agents access to non-public areas of county property “for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration law” unless they have a warrant issued by a judge.

Quezada said in an interview he only recently learned about ICE’s regular visits to peruse records. He called it “disconcerting” and said it’s one of the reasons he drafted the resolution.

“There’s got to be a process; if he has a warrant, then he has legal right to do that,” Quezada said. “If he’s looking for someone specifically, I don’t want to stop him from doing that job, but he’s got to do it through the way the system is set up.

“There’s no end around.”

An ICE spokesperson has not responded to Journal questions about how it would move forward under the new policy.

Bernalillo County in 2017 declared itself an “immigrant-friendly county” with a resolution stating no county resources could be used to discern an individual’s immigration status or apprehend anyone solely on the basis of their immigration status, unless otherwise required by law.

But the new resolution adds several rules.

In addition to denying ICE agents access to non-public areas without a court-issued warrant, the resolution will prevent any county employee or anyone acting on the county’s behalf from asking individuals about their immigration status, citizenship, place of birth or nationality, except as required by law.

It would also ban county agencies, employees and contractors from releasing “sensitive information” obtained in the course of their county duties, including Social Security numbers or lack thereof, addresses, employment information, sexual orientation, religion and inmates’ custody release dates. There are some exceptions, including disclosure “to assist the Judicial branch of our State,” including state courts, state district attorneys and state public defenders, and in response to public records requests for information not exempted under law.

While it would extend to all county government divisions, it would have obvious implications at MDC, which generally houses from 1,300 to 1,400 inmates.

Jail spokeswoman Candace Hopkins said MDC does not track inmates’ immigration status, but it does keep information about their place of birth and national origin – questions it cannot ask under the new resolution.

Various records at the jail also contain details about inmates’ employment, gender identity, sexual orientation and, in some cases, their religion and whether they receive public assistance.

It was unclear late Tuesday when the jail would change its procedures to comply with the new county rules, but County Attorney Ken Martinez said he planned to meet with MDC’s leadership today.

About 20 members of the public spoke in favor of the resolution’s broader implications on Tuesday, including representatives from the Law Offices of the Public Defender’s metro division, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, the New Mexico Conference of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This resolution will make sure the County is not complicit in assisting the administration (of President Donald Trump) in unfairly targeting members of our immigrant community, and the law is on our side,” said Maria Martinez Sanchez, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico.

Some who spoke said the resolution could make the community safer if the immigrant population trusted that county agencies and law enforcement officials would not volunteer their personal information to ICE. Some shared their own experiences of having a family member detained or deported; others described immigrants’ contributions to the community and local economy.

Dozens in the chambers applauded the commission’s 5-0 approval and the celebratory spirit spilled out into the hallway after the vote.

If people in the community are “afraid just to contact law enforcement when they’ve been victims of a crime, it puts everybody in danger,” said Marian Mendez-Cera, a civil rights and workers justice organizer with El Centro, in lauding the commission’s decision.

“This is a great victory for the immigrant community,” she added. “It is also a victory for vulnerable communities as a whole because it includes safeguards for private information, (including) gender identity, religion, sexual orientation. It’s super-important that this information … (is) kept confidential.”

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