Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Judge Puts Stop to Immigrant Raids
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
The chief federal judge in New Mexico has ordered the Otero County Sheriff's Department to halt communitywide raids in poor Chaparral neighborhoods conducted solely to find illegal immigrants.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit said the raids illegally targeted low-income Latino residents and were carried out using Operation Stonegarden funds earmarked for anti-terrorism activities.
The preliminary injunction ordered by Chief Judge Martha Vázquez is virtually unprecedented nationally, at least at this stage of proceedings, attorneys familiar with immigration cases say.
Vázquez entered the order Friday in favor of the Border Network for Human Rights, which filed suit on behalf of more than a dozen alleged victims of the raids, including three children.
Albuquerque lawyer William Slease, who represents Otero County, said he does not comment on pending litigation, but defendants in court documents deny they are acting illegally.
Plaintiffs' attorney Briana Stone, director of the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, said the order marks a milestone. "The judge's decision confirms that within our borders, everyone has the constitutional rights to be safe in our homes and free from discrimination elsewhere," she said. "Hopefully this ruling will ease some of the fears that residents of Chaparral have had since Operation Stonegarden began."
The court's order bars the sheriff's department from engaging in any stops, searches or seizures of persons, property or homes without a valid legal justification pursuant to Operation Stonegarden, a program that provides federal money to states for anti-terrorism and drug trafficking interdiction activities.
It also bars the office from "unlawful discriminatory activities and racial profiling" to identify illegal immigrants and unlawful retaliation, coercion, harassment, threats or intimidation.
David Urias, an Albuquerque attorney who as a former lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund sued Otero County in a separate but related lawsuit, said an overriding problem is lack of state guidelines for the money.
Operation Stonegarden funds are supposed to be used for things such as fighting cross-border drug smuggling, he said, but without state guidance, local law enforcement officers "take it upon themselves to act as Border Patrol agents and start targeting people who might be undocumented."
The lawsuit filed by MALDEF and the ACLU of New Mexico was resolved in April when Otero County adopted new policies and procedures, but Vázquez's order said that did not mean there was no need for an injunction.
"Voluntary cessation of allegedly unlawful conduct does not necessarily make a case moot," she wrote.