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Gov. wants U.S. probe of Otero County lockup

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is concerned about the treatment of individuals being held at the Otero County Processing Center and is calling for a federal investigation. (Rene Romo/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling for a federal investigation into conditions at the troubled Otero County detention center.

In letters to the acting secretary of homeland security and the Office of the Inspector General, the governor expresses “extreme concern about persistent reports of inhumane treatment of individuals” held at the Otero County Processing Center.

She asks acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan to “take steps to ensure that any mistreatment at ICE facilities in the state ends immediately.”

In a letter to Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, Lujan Grisham asks that his office open an investigation immediately after reports “asylum-seekers attempted self-harm in despair over the cruel conditions in which they are held.” The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security provides independent oversight of ICE.

The letters were sent Friday, the same day the Journal published a story about three asylum-seekers from Cuba who advocates and attorneys say tried to commit suicide this month at the Otero County Processing Center.

“This is a really positive step in the right direction,” said Margaret Brown Vega with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) in the Chihuahuan Desert after learning about the governor’s letters. “I hope that we can actually get, ultimately at the very least, state oversight of these facilities and then work to close them down.”

She and other volunteers with the Las Cruces-based organization regularly visit asylum-seekers in Otero and other ICE detention centers.

ICE confirmed two men from Cuba “attempted to harm themselves” in mid-October at the Otero County detention center, but “medical staff acted immediately to end both displays.” Detainees did not break the skin on their wrists, according to ICE.

But an attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center said a third man at the facility, Iosnaiqui Acosta-Columbie, a 32-year-old asylum-seeker from Cuba, cut his wrist and was bleeding as he was being taken to solitary confinement earlier this month.

“Investigate this prison. Interview all of us so the world can see what we’re suffering,” Acosta-Columbie said in a message delivered through the attorney to the Journal.

In her letters calling for an investigation of the Otero center, the governor writes, “These are not the first troubling reports about detainees in ICE custody at this facility and others in this state.”

She refers in the letter to the deaths of two transgender women from Central America.

Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez died last year while in ICE custody in Cibola County. Johana Medina Leon died during the summer in an El Paso hospital days after her release from the Otero facility, where she spent two months.

Management Training Corp., a private contractor, runs the Otero County Processing Center for ICE. The facility in Chaparral has been the site of multiple hunger strikes by asylum-seekers from India. Last month, after 75 days on a hunger strike that started at Otero and included force-feeding, two men were released to await a decision from immigration court on their asylum cases.

“This for profit, prolonged and unnecessary detention of civil detainees must be a part of our continuing conversation and should be investigated by several layers of our government,” said Linda Corchado, director of legal services for the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Immigrants look to our institutions for accountability and I hope the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) will execute its obligations and investigate what’s going on at Otero,” said Corchado.

In her letter to the Office of the Inspector General Gov. Lujan Grisham wrote, “As governor, I will not tolerate inhumane treatment in my state point blank.” She asks to be kept apprised of findings to the fullest extent possible.

“New Mexicans similarly will not tolerate this kind of reported treatment. It’s not who we are as Americans, and I know it’s not who we are as New Mexicans,” the governor wrote.