ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico sheriffs and police and other local government officials were split or noncommittal in their reactions to a new U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo outlining plans to boost a program that allows local departments to be commissioned to enforce federal immigration laws.
While it’s common for local authorities throughout New Mexico to partner with federal agents and work on task forces that address narcotics trafficking and other crimes – and immigration cases may result from those investigations – local authorities do not specifically enforce immigration laws, multiple law enforcement officials said.
The DHS memo said undocumented immigrants who commit crimes are the program’s priority.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said that he doesn’t think the DHS memos will have an effect on immigration enforcement in Albuquerque. He said he has welcomed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to check immigration status of suspects who are being taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.
“This is a reasonable approach that improves the safety of our residents, including the safety of those in the immigrant community in Albuquerque,” he said. “As far as APD officers joining ICE as immigration law enforcers – we simply don’t have the resources or plans to do that.”
In Santa Fe, city policies prevent officers from getting involved in immigration proceedings unless they have permission from a commander and the police chief. And that only happens in “the most extreme criminal circumstances. Not for things like shoplifting or speeding or other similar crimes,” Police Chief Patrick Gallagher said in a statement.
“We have no intention of changing our current policies at this time,” he added.
Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique Kiki Vigil said his deputies will enforce New Mexico laws and statutes, not federal immigration laws.
“We need to protect victims of crimes and any potential witnesses, regardless of immigration status. We must encourage the involvement of victims or witnesses coming forward to report crimes and protect them from retaliation,” he said in a statement. “We don’t want undocumented immigrants to be preyed upon by any unscrupulous individuals or groups that will target this population because they know that this population is vulnerable and in fear of deportation or reprisal.”
Welcomed in Hidalgo County
Others said the ability to enforce immigration laws would be a useful tool.
Sparsely populated Hidalgo County is a known corridor for marijuana trafficking. Sheriff Warren Walter told the Journal on Tuesday that he would work with DHS.
“Here on the border, I believe we all have to work together,” Walter said. “I don’t think it would hurt us any; it would give us extra authority to identify. We are the weak link in the chain I believe.”
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said the new plan could affect county budgets, as they would have to pay to house the undocumented immigrants in a local jail. But he said the program would benefit many counties, especially some of the rural ones around New Mexico.
Christesen said his deputies encounter undocumented immigrants multiple times a day, but there’s a very small Immigration and Customs Enforcement presence in the northwest New Mexico county.
“It would be a benefit to some extent,” Christesen said in an interview. “We wouldn’t go out and do immigration raids, but … if you run into (undocumented immigrants) on a call we should be able to detain them instead of just releasing them to commit another crime.”
Torrance County Sheriff Heath White, the chairman of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association, said he hadn’t been briefed on the DHS plan and didn’t want to comment.
‘Not a federal agency’
Felicia Romero, a spokeswoman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies have not specifically targeted illegal immigrants as part of their work on federal task forces.
“At this time it’s not a concern for us,” Romero said. “We’re not a federal agency. We’re a local agency.”
In recent years, the sheriff’s office has made efforts to improve relationships and trust between it and parts of Bernalillo County that are believed to have many undocumented residents, like Pajarito Mesa in the southwest part of the county.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins questioned whether the program could damage public safety.
“I worry that turning local law enforcement into immigration agents will compromise public safety. Local law enforcement relies on the trust and participation of all county residents, including our immigrant population, to keep our community safe,” she said in a statement. “If undocumented residents fear deportation if they call 911 in an emergency or report a crime, they won’t share information that law enforcement needs to catch lawbreakers and solve crimes.”
Others raised concerns about financing immigration enforcement and having to redirect limited resources to the topic.
“It’s hard for us to anticipate how this new set of instructions will affect us or the residents in Doña Ana County,” said Kelly Jameson, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. “As you know, we are short-staffed and are already overwhelmed with taking care of our day-to-day duties serving the needs of county residents on a local level. To be available as Secretary Kelly has advised would be difficult.”
Wait and see in Otero County
Otero County was the site of highly publicized immigration raids several years ago, especially in the unincorporated community of Chaparral.
Sheriff Benny House said deputies do not currently enforce immigration law and he would have to see the language in any agreement with DHS before deciding whether to participate.
“Right now I don’t have jurisdiction to enforce federal law,” he said. “Unless I’m granted the authority or jurisdiction I’m not going to do it. They can’t require me either because that would be an unfunded mandate.”
The majority of residents in Chaparral may be living in the U.S. illegally or have a family member who is, he said. House said he knows that community doesn’t want the sheriff involved in immigration enforcement.
“I just want to make sure everybody knows we are going to follow the law and we are going to be reasonable in whatever we do,” he said.