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Operation Using Deputies Creates Mistrust in Border Town

By Rene Romo
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
    CHAPARRAL— A federally funded operation last week had sheriff's deputies in southern New Mexico picking up undocumented immigrants— a job usually left to the U.S. Border Patrol.
    Otero and Doña Ana County sheriffs' patrols in Chaparral on Sept. 10 stemmed from a federal Department of Homeland Security program called Operation Stonegarden.
    Stonegarden has directed billions of dollars in recent years to law enforcement agencies along the Mexican and Canadian borders to enhance border security, target human and drug trafficking, and counter terrorist threats.
    In a typical Stonegarden operation, said Cpl. James Hash of the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department, a number of deputies are assigned to road networks near the Mexican border to focus on narcotics and immigrant trafficking.
    "We are looking for speeders, we are looking for headlights out— the stuff that enables us to make a traffic stop so that once we make a stop, we can ask questions and dig deeper," Hash said.
    A deputy may then ask a suspected immigrant for legal documents and will summon the Border Patrol if the motorist cannot provide them.
    Typically, deputies issuing a routine traffic citation will not inquire about a driver's legal status if the driver has a driver's license, insurance card and vehicle registration in order, Hash said. But during Stonegarden operations, deputies will inquire about immigration status, Hash said.
    The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday condemned what it called an "immigration raid" in Chaparral by the county sheriff departments, and is investigating the Sept. 10 action.
    Representatives of the ACLU visited residents of this mostly immigrant southern New Mexico community on Monday.
    Residents reported that deputies entered some homes without warrants or consent or, after stopping some drivers for traffic violations, asked for documentation about legal status, according to the ACLU.
    "This is irresponsible policing," said Maria Nape, director of the ACLU's Border Rights office. "Immigrants in these communities may never again trust that they can report crimes to sheriff's deputies, even if they are the victim. When local police become Border Patrol agents, it rips a hole in the fabric of public safety that takes years to mend."
    Otero County Sheriff John Blansett held a news conference on the matter in Alamogordo on Monday but gave no notice to the Journal and a lieutenant refused to comment later when reached by telephone.
    The Chaparral action was largely carried out by Otero County deputies. The department assigned nine deputies and three reserve deputies to the 12-hour-long operation.
    Some press reports have stated Otero County deputies detained 28 undocumented immigrants and turned them over to Border Patrol agents, but Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, put the tally at 17. The total included 12 adults and five minors, Mosier said.
    Mosier added that Border Patrol agents did not participate directly in the operation but only processed undocumented immigrants turned over by Otero County deputies.
    Doña Ana County assigned two deputies to Chaparral that day. Six citations were issued and one arrest was made on a warrant, but no undocumented immigrants were encountered during the project, according to the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department.
    Since starting Stonegarden operations in mid-May, Doña Ana County deputies have turned over 22 undocumented immigrants to Border Patrol agents.
    Doña Ana County was provided $178,000 to cover overtime expenses for Stonegarden-related operations from March 2007 to the end of November 2008, Hash said.
    Last week, several parents, accompanied by Otero County deputies, removed six children from Chaparral schools, said Art Ruiloba, a spokesman for Gadsden Independent School District.
    The Stonegarden operation has spooked some parents, Ruiloba said, who called schools to say they were keeping their children home for the day "because they were fearful."
    "There is a lot of dread," said Irma Castaneda, a community advocate for the Border Network for Human Rights, who works and lives in Chaparral.
    "The people are homebound. They don't want to go to the store, to classes."
    Most local law enforcement agencies have avoided inquiring about legal status to encourage trust and communication with residents. But as the debate over immigration and border security has heated up, pressure has grown on local law enforcement agencies to assist the Border Patrol in clamping down on illegal immigration.
    Meanwhile, following the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Albuquerque Police Department in August issued new procedures saying officers "shall not inquire about or seek proof of a person's immigration status, unless the person is in custody or is a suspect in a criminal investigation for a non-immigration criminal violation and the immigration status of the person or suspect is pertinent to the criminal investigation."