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Lawmakers debate courthouse immigration arrests

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers are wrestling with what steps – if any – they should take to prevent federal immigration agents from arresting people at courthouses throughout the state.

In a hearing Wednesday, a panel of legislators heard from lawyers, advocacy groups and immigrants about conditions inside federal detention centers and more than 30 arrests at courthouses in New Mexico.

Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque, a retired law professor, said it’s vital that crime victims, witnesses and others feel safe to visit the courthouse to testify, without fearing arrest because of their immigration status. The outcome of a case entirely unrelated to immigration, she said, could hinge on who’s willing to testify.

“Our courthouses should be for everyone,” Sedillo Lopez told her colleagues. “This isn’t just about immigrants.”

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement say courthouse arrests are often necessary because of local jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with the agency.

Sedillo Lopez said she will ask Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to add the issue to the Legislature’s agenda in the 2020 session. In even-numbered years, New Mexico’s governor is empowered to restrict what bills can be taken up by lawmakers.

Lujan Grisham earlier this year raised her own concerns about courthouse arrests, though she hasn’t said yet whether she wants lawmakers to address the issue.

Lawmakers discussed a variety of ideas during Wednesday’s meeting of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, including the possibility of expanding a state law that already prohibits arresting out-of-state witnesses. They also broached the idea of improving record-keeping on immigration arrests inside or near state courthouses and allowing people to testify in certain circumstances from a remote location, such as through a video link.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat and lawyer, said lawmakers should take care to craft solutions that can survive a legal challenge. The propriety of courthouse immigration arrests, he said, could be addressed through a federal lawsuit or a change in federal law rather than state legislation.

“I want us to be very careful about making promises we can’t keep,” Candelaria said.

Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, said he wished lawmakers had also heard from ICE or the U.S. Border Patrol during Wednesday’s hearing.

“I hope the conversation is always balanced,” he said.

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