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State agency denies ICE request for worker records

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., in this July 2019 file photo. A New Mexico state agency recently denied an ICE request for employee records. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A federal immigration agency sought direct access to New Mexico worker and employer records last week, but permission was ultimately denied by a Cabinet secretary in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

The repeated requests from an El Paso-based U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official came just days before ICE agents raided several food-processing plants in Mississippi and reportedly arrested more than 600 individuals believed to be working in the country without authorization.

In New Mexico, last week’s requests for employee records were sent to several officials with the state’s Department of Workplace Solutions, according to emails obtained by the Journal.

In one email, the ICE investigative assistant said agents already had access to a Texas workforce database and needed similar information from New Mexico for criminal investigations.

In addition, the ICE officials said the information would be used to provide agents with a “quick same-day response” – presumably regarding workers’ legal residence status.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley, who officially denied the request on Aug. 2, said the agency’s employment records include the names and address of all New Mexico workers – and those on the state’s unemployment rolls.

He said denying ICE’s request for direct access to the worker database was the “right thing” to do.

“We need to be extremely careful and protect people’s civil rights and personal information,” McCamley told the Journal.

“Neither Gov. Lujan Grisham nor I will work to destroy families,” he added. “We need communities where people feel safe.”

McCamley, a former state legislator from Las Cruces, also said state law gives the Department of Workforce Solutions leeway to decide whether to provide law enforcement agencies with employee information in cases involving criminal investigations or child support payments.

The agency is willing to work with law enforcement agencies in those situations, he said, but he described the broad request by ICE officials for direct access to worker files as unprecedented since he took over as Cabinet secretary in January.

“It’s not a secret what they want this information for,” McCamley said, referring to the workplace ICE raids in Mississippi and other locations.

An ICE spokeswoman in El Paso did not respond Thursday to questions about the federal agency’s request, and what it intended to do with the requested records.

The agency, which was created in 2003 and is charged with enforcing federal immigration laws, policing human smuggling and preventing terrorist attacks, has been targeted for abolishment by some prominent national Democrats.

In a follow-up message after his initial denial, McCamley told an ICE official Thursday that the state will consider future data requests case by case, but only for purposes of investigating “specifically identifiable” criminal conduct.

McCamley also said ICE officials continued to ask other state employees for direct access to worker files even after the official denial letter was sent.

Federal immigrant enforcement efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration have come under scrutiny, including a “zero-tolerance” policy for unauthorized border crossings that led to children being separated from their parents.

In addition, New Mexico immigrant advocacy groups have expressed concern over an uptick in ICE activity in the local court systems. However, no large-scale workplace raids have been reported in the state in recent months, and some border communities struggled earlier this year to provide humanitarian aid to a surge of asylum-seekers, many of them from Central America.

Steven Allen, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, said McCamley deserves credit for denying the ICE request for worker data.

But he also said previously proposed legislation barring state employees from disclosing any information they might have about individuals – including sexual orientation and immigration status – should be revisited.

A bill that would have done that, with several allowable exceptions, was proposed during this year’s 60-day legislative session but ultimately stalled in a Senate committee.

“There’s no reason for a state agency to hand that information over unless they’re complying with a court order,” Allen said Thursday.

As of June, there were roughly 911,700 employed New Mexicans and about 47,300 state residents receiving unemployment benefits, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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