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NM jails in the dark about new ICE program

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Four months into a new Homeland Security program meant to nab certain “priority” unauthorized immigrants, a majority of New Mexico detention centers key to making the program work haven’t been contacted about it.

Wardens of 21 of New Mexico’s 29 county detention centers met recently in Ruidoso and took a show of hands: Who had heard from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about its new plan to request notification when a suspected unauthorized immigrant was in their custody?

Matt Elwell, director of the Luna County Detention Center and chairman of a New Mexico detention center administrators organization

Matt Elwell is director of the Luna County Detention Center and chairman of a New Mexico detention center administrators organization. Elwell says he is concerned that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn’t informed jail administrators about its new plan to request notification when an unauthorized immigrant with a serious criminal record is in their custody. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Just one, the Grant County jail administrator, raised his hand, said Matt Elwell, director of the Luna County Detention Center and chairman of the New Mexico Association of Counties Detention Administrators Affiliate.


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Elwell said he first heard about the program from the Journal and said the lack of information from ICE “is very concerning.”

“If they want us to collaborate together, you would think they would visit with the jail administrators and at least inform us about their new program or objectives,” Elwell said.

A spokeswoman for Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center – the state’s largest county jail by inmate population – also said the administration had not heard from ICE.

An ICE spokeswoman on Friday told the Journal the agency has spoken with New Mexico sheriffs and intends to reach out to county jail administrators in the coming weeks to brief them on the program and request their cooperation.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson rolled out the “Priority Enforcement Program,” or PEP, in July in an effort to make amends with cities and counties that felt burned by the program it replaced, Secure Communities.

Under that program, ICE asked jails to hold inmates flagged for immigration violations an extra 48 hours beyond their release date to give ICE time to pick them up. Many jails complied with the so-called “detainers” and some got sued – including San Juan and Doña Ana counties – after holding people without a warrant.

Federal courts have ruled that detainers are requests and do not have the force of a judicial order.

New Mexico counties had stopped honoring ICE detainers or limited their cooperation by earlier this year, according to New Mexico Association of Counties general counsel Grace Philips.


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Localities around the country are now deciding whether to cooperate with the Priority Enforcement Program, which targets unauthorized immigrants only in “specific, limited circumstances,” ICE says, such as those with serious criminal records.

New Mexico detention center directors say they need to hear about the program from ICE before deciding whether they will participate.

ICE says its new “request for notification” asks a detention center to notify the agency when a suspect is in custody, not hold them beyond their scheduled release. However, ICE says it may still issue 48-hour detainers under limited circumstances – but that under the PEP, cooperation is voluntary.

“We do notify ICE after an inmate has been released but cannot hold them on this document once the local cases are cleared,” Metropolitan Detention Center spokeswoman Nataura Powdrell said in an emailed response.

Johnson originally announced the PEP in an issue of Sheriffs Magazine; nationwide, sheriffs typically run the county jail. ICE agents began meeting with sheriffs around New Mexico this past summer.

But in New Mexico, administrators hired by the county manage the detention centers. They – not sheriffs – are in a position to notify ICE about an inmate’s upcoming release.

“They haven’t gotten the message to us yet,” said Clay Corn, administrator of the Chaves County Detention Center in Roswell. “I think mutual cooperation between our agencies would certainly benefit both of us since we are the agency that would be holding these prisoners. What are they trying to accomplish with these new forms? What is the vision for detaining these people in the future, legally? It would be a good idea to share interagency information.”

Elwell said he and many other detention center administrators have good working relationships with their local ICE agents and are open to increased cooperation, but most agree: They will not hold inmates beyond their scheduled release.

“If this person is a person of interest, then charge them,” Elwell said. “Then we can automatically turn them over to you. The process is there. That would be easier than putting the blame on local detention centers. We don’t control our front and back door. We just hold people legally by documents.”

“When the county or jail starts collaborating with ICE, you inevitably hold people over their release date,” said Elsa López, a community organizer with Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant rights organization that is party to a lawsuit against San Juan County related to an ICE detainer. “Not only is it a misuse of resources, it has sent a very strong message to the immigrant community to not trust local police.”