The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Court alleging officials there refused to release surveillance video that the organization believes may show immigration agents wrongfully arresting a graduate student.
The suit, filed Tuesday in state District Court, alleges the foreign-born student was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement outside a sixth-floor courtroom in February despite explaining that he is in the United States lawfully. He asked the agents to contact his sponsor at the University of New Mexico, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in engineering. The student, who is not named in the suit, was taken to a holding cell near the Albuquerque International Sunport and repeatedly told he would be deported, but he was ultimately released when ICE confirmed that he is here lawfully.
ICE enforcement in local courthouses has been debated for more than two years. Critics of ICE worry the threat of detention will cause immigrants to stay away from the courthouse, potentially undermining public safety.
In fall 2018, Metro Court implemented a policy that bars local, state and federal law enforcement from making arrests except with a judicial warrant, by lawful court order or to secure immediate public safety. An ACLU attorney has said in the past that ICE generally uses administrative warrants.
Daniel Yohalem, who is representing ACLU-New Mexico in the lawsuit, said the footage the organization has requested will show whether Metro Court is enforcing that policy. He said the organization requested access to footage of a specific publicly accessible portion of the courthouse over a period of a couple of hours.
In denying the ACLU request, the court said the video was exempt from release under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act because it is “part of the court’s tactical response to security threats,” the suit says.
According to an IPRA compliance guide, that exception was designed to protect government agencies from having to release plans and procedures that “could reveal specific vulnerabilities, risk assessments or tactical emergency security procedures that could be used by terrorists to plan or carry out an attack.”
Yohalem said the ACLU request has “nothing to do with combatting terrorism.”
“There is no legitimate exemption that applies, and the courthouse needs to turn over the very limited video that’s being sought here so the ACLU can determine exactly what happened in that seizure and what, if any, role Bernalillo County officials played in it,” Yohalem said.
A Metro Court spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday that the court cannot comment on the pending lawsuit. Asked whether ICE is continuing immigration enforcement in Metro Court, she said the court is not aware of any arrests in the courthouse in the past few months.
“As the busiest court in the state, we continue to work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that we have an open and safe environment for the nearly 7,000 people who visit the court each week,” she said.
A spokesman for ICE did not respond to a request for comment other than to say he could not issue a statement about a specific person without an alien registration number or name, date of birth and country of origin.
The ACLU is seeking compensatory damages, costs and attorneys’ fees and that Metro Court be forced to turn over the footage.