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Bill would make NM sanctuary state

SANTA FE – President Donald Trump has vowed to block federal funding to “sanctuary cities” that try to protect immigrants who are in the country illegally.

But what about a sanctuary state?

A proposal introduced in the state House hints at such a confrontation.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring a bill that aims to prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal immigration laws.

The move is somewhat symbolic, as police departments and sheriff’s offices say they already focus on enforcing local laws, not federal ones, and county jails in New Mexico generally don’t honor immigration holds requested by federal agents.

A 2011 executive order by Gov. Susana Martinez directs State Police to inquire about immigration status after someone’s been arrested, but Roybal Caballero’s bill doesn’t directly address whether that would still be allowed.

Practical impact aside, the legislation is at odds with the Trump administration. Enforcement of federal immigration law was a centerpiece of his campaign.

Trump has said he wants to end sanctuary cities, block funding to cities that don’t cooperate with federal authorities and build an impenetrable wall along the Mexican border.

That doesn’t bother Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat who supports the immigration bill introduced in the state House.

“I don’t believe that the federal government should be in the business of bullying states,” Martinez told the Journal.

The bill, he said, is important to ensure that crime victims and witnesses are comfortable talking to police.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, said she opposes the bill and any other effort to circumvent the nation’s laws.

“I can’t predict whether or not a confrontation will ensue,” she said in an email to the Journal, “but I think these cities could ultimately face a loss of federal funding, which only hurts their ability to adequately serve and protect the residents of these cities.”

Roybal Caballero’s proposal, House Bill 116, has been referred to the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee – of which she is vice chairwoman – and the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill says state and local law enforcement agencies shall not use state or federal resources “for the purpose of detecting or apprehending persons whose only violation of law is that they are persons of foreign citizenship who have entered or are residing in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws,” unless otherwise legally required to.

Roybal Caballero said the proposal would protect immigrant families and ensure that local law enforcement focuses on violent crime, “rather than tearing families apart.”

“Now that we have a threat to our state’s values in the White House,” she said, “we must do everything we can to keep our families strong and together.”

In 2015, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, introduced a similar bill that passed a committee but didn’t make it out of the Senate.

Supporters say the proposal would send a message to crime victims and witnesses – that it’s OK to speak to police without fear of deportation – and improve public safety.

“It’s important,” said Steven Robert Allen, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “We want our immigrant families to feel safe in situations where there’s an emergency to reach out to law enforcement.”

Hidalgo County Sheriff Warren Walter, who works in the southernmost county of the state, bordering Mexico, said he wishes the Legislature would move in the opposite direction.

“I think they should give us authority to check immigration myself, especially along the border,” Walter said.

It could make it easier to stop a terrorist or other criminal, he said.

As for House Bill 116, Walter said he wasn’t sure what its practical impact would be on operations.

The state Department of Public Safety told the Senate two years ago that the proposal wouldn’t necessarily mean officers can’t stop a person who has entered the country illegally. If the immigrant is on private land, he or she could be charged with trespassing, the department said, and the officer could notify federal authorities.

Local officers could also help federal immigration agents who call for assistance, according to the department’s analysis.

Albuquerque police don’t expect a dramatic change if the bill passes. Officers don’t inquire about a person’s immigration status or try to enforce federal immigration law, spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said.

Federal agents already check the immigration status of anyone arrested, regardless of nationality – a change Mayor Richard Berry pushed for after winning election in 2009. The agents work out of a prisoner transport center, and they’re the ones who check the person’s status.

But New Mexico jails generally don’t honor requests from immigration authorities to hold on to inmates who – while booked on unrelated charges – are suspected of having entered the country illegally.

Bernalillo County attorneys made the change in 2014, for example, saying the county couldn’t violate an inmate’s rights for the convenience of a federal agency. Inmates can be held only if there’s a valid order, the county says.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Gov. Martinez, a Republican, issued an executive order directing State Police to ask about the immigration status of people arrested for crimes, essentially undoing a 2005 policy of her predecessor, former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.

House Bill 116, in any case, doesn’t specifically mention whether officers can inquire about immigration status after an arrest.

“While we haven’t reviewed the legislation,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said, “the governor’s stance on these issues has always been clear. As a former prosecutor from a border district for more than 20 years, it’s never been about immigration – it’s about public safety.”

It isn’t clear whether the legislation might catch the attention of the Trump administration, which took office Friday and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

There’s no legal definition of a sanctuary city or state, though the term is often applied to cities that vow to protect immigrants or bar using local resources to enforce federal immigration laws.

Despite Gov. Martinez’ mandate for State Police, the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for “low immigration,” already describes New Mexico as a sanctuary state, along with Colorado, California and Connecticut.

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