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Editorial: Dangerous suspects need to be on ICE

If you’re among those wondering why it’s a good idea Paul Morales-Ramos is back on the streets rather than in custody after his arrest as part of the investigation into the death of Jacqueline Vigil, shot in cold blood as she sat in her car outside her West Side home last Nov. 19, you’re just going to have to ask your friendly Bernalillo County commissioner.

A search warrant by the FBI-led violent crime task force working the Vigil case says Morales-Ramos, 30, “cleaned” the getaway vehicle used after Luis Talamantes-Romero allegedly shot the 55-year old mother of two State Police officers. (The affidavit shows Morales-Ramos didn’t do a great job, with shell casings found in and outside the vehicle.)

Although Talamantes-Romero has been identified in court documents as the prime suspect and triggerman, he hasn’t been charged in Vigil’s slaying. He is being held in custody in San Antonio, Texas, awaiting sentencing on felony illegal reentry charges. Federal prosecutors have asked the judge there for an enhanced sentence, citing the Vigil case.

Meanwhile, Morales-Ramos has been charged with felony possession of methamphetamine, unrelated to Vigil’s slaying. With no criminal record, state District Judge Victor E. Valdez ordered him released on personal recognizance.

That’s where your county commissioners come in. In February 2019, Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada introduced legislation, unanimously approved, to reinforce the county’s 2017 assertion it is an “immigrant-friendly” community and effectively prohibit any cooperation with federal immigration agents unless they have a warrant issued by a judge.

Morales-Ramos is a Mexican national who allegedly entered the United States illegally in 2016. The Department of Homeland Security had requested Morales-Ramos be held until he could be taken into federal custody on immigration charges.

But as Metropolitan Detention Center spokeswoman Julia Rivera said, “We do not honor ICE detainers nor do we communicate with ICE at all.” So if immigration officials want to take Morales-Ramos into custody, they will have to grab him at a residence or off the street rather than during a safe and effective transfer from MDC.

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales announced the arrest of Morales-Ramos last week as part of the federal Operation Legend crackdown. Asked about Morales-Ramos’ release from jail, the sheriff, through a spokesman, said BCSO “will continue to collaborate with all law enforcement agencies and we will also pursue all outstanding criminals that pose a danger to the community. The Bernalillo County commissioners are responsible for the current immigration detainer policies.”

Indeed they are. Former Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, along with Commissioners Debbie O’Malley, Lonnie Talbert and Charlene Pyskoty, approved Quezada’s measure.

In 2018, a 4-1 majority rejected an attempt by then-Commissioner Wayne Johnson to provide 48-hour notice before releasing a detainee identified by Homeland Security and honor a requested hold for up to 48 hours.

And so the county is operating under Quezada’s ordinance that bars the use of county money or personnel to enforce immigration laws, adopted when there were reports of “informal” cooperation between MDC and ICE. ICE agents are barred from accessing anything but public areas at MDC.

“When sanctuary-city policies prohibit ICE officers’ ability to identify and take custody of criminal aliens in a controlled environment such as local jails, ICE is forced to dedicate its limited resources to track down fugitives and dangerous criminals upon release,” Corey Price, an official with ICE, said at the time. He called sanctuary policies misguided efforts by “those who ultimately want to shield dangerous criminals from being deported.”

That’s harsh criticism. You could almost call it “aiding and abetting.” Quezada has defended the policies and said he was “protecting children, good families and good people.”

If you want to know exactly how that applies to Morales-Ramos, you’ll have to ask the commissioner. And while he’s at it, perhaps he can explain to Jacque Vigil’s husband, Sam, and her two sons why it’s a good thing Morales-Ramos is back on the streets in this crime-ridden county.

No one is suggesting the county enforce immigration laws. But in the interest of public safety, commissioners should reexamine their ban on cooperating with federal authorities whose job it is to enforce those laws – especially when it involves violent crime.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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