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ICE raid panics immigrants in southern New Mexico

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – An immigration raid at a trailer park early Wednesday panicked immigrant families across southern New Mexico worried about tougher enforcement under the Trump administration.

Rumors of widespread raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Las Cruces proved unfounded.

But even one action was enough to ignite social networks, as mixed-status families and immigrant advocates reported supposed sightings of ICE or Border Patrol vans from the Doña Ana community to Chaparral.

At Los Arboles mobile home park – tucked between the urban footprint and pecan orchards in Las Cruces – residents said ICE officers wearing bullet-proof vests banged on their doors in the dark, starting around 6 a.m., looking for a man with a Hispanic last name. They spotted four ICE SUVs parked on the pocked dirt road that leads to their homes.

It’s not clear whether officers found their target; an ICE spokeswoman declined to confirm the operation.

But ICE officers did find another man in the park, Concepción Gómez, getting into his car on his way to a forklift job, according to Carlos Vareda, Gómez’s brother-in-law.

Gómez, a Mexican father of two young children, had been living in the country for a decade, Vareda said. Officers asked for his papers and he admitted he did not have legal residency. They cuffed him and placed him in the back of an SUV.

Vareda broke down telling how he begged the officers to tell him where they were taking Gómez and got no answer. Vareda said his brother-in-law did not have a criminal record, and a state courts online database doesn’t include Gómez name.

ICE has two detention centers in Chaparral and El Paso, but county detention facilities in southern New Mexico also have contracts to hold federal detainees.

ICE policy is not to confirm an operation “prior to its completion,” said spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.

In a statement, she said, “ICE regularly conducts targeted enforcement operations during which additional resources and personnel are dedicated to apprehending deportable foreign nationals.”

That was true under the Obama administration, as well – although ICE arrests were scaled back over the past two years after reaching record highs. Trump has promised to ramp up enforcement of immigration laws to include nonviolent offenders.

Last year, ICE administrative arrests – the kind now leading to “raids” in which others are picked up when an officer executes a warrant on a single individual – were down 9 percent compared with the prior year.

Total ICE removals plummeted 41 percent last year to 240,255 from a record of 409,849 in fiscal 2012 under Obama, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. The drop was due in large measure to a 2014 Department of Justice memorandum advising ICE to restrict enforcement to “priority” groups, including violent criminals and recent border crossers.

Trump signed an executive order Jan. 25 that effectively removed those restrictions and broadened the enforcement “priorities” to include “individuals apprehended on suspicion of violating federal or state law, including federal immigration law.”

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said, “The problem with Trump is that they have exactly said who they are looking for: not only convicted criminals but people with expired visas, people who returned after deportation. Who they are looking for right now, it is a lot of people.”

Last week, ICE executed roundups in major U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York, heightening fears. Many immigrant families have mixed status, with some U.S. citizen members or green-card holders, who are legal permanent residents, and others who are here without legal status.

Mexican Consul General Efren Leyva in Albuquerque told KOAT this week that his office is seeing five times as many visitors as usual, as immigrants seek to cement their citizenship or legal status.

The concerns reached the Roundhouse on Wednesday. Several Democratic lawmakers from Doña Ana County marched up to Gov. Susana Martinez’s office and delivered a letter asking her to affirm that federal immigration agents won’t go to schools, hospitals, courthouses and other sensitive locations. They said ICE’s actions had “created a culture of fear” in southern New Mexico.

Anyone who crossed the border illegally even once could be targeted for deportation under Trump’s order, according to immigrant advocates.

“That means there are probably 8 million people eligible to be deported,” said Ken Ferrone, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico. “There is a lot of anxiety.”

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay in Santa Fe contributed to this report.