Fifty years ago, men walked on the moon. Today, plans are being laid to slingshot to Mars from the moon while livestreaming.
But for any taxpayer wishing to know the proportion of inmates at the Lea County Detention Center who are in the United States illegally, or the citizenship status of any particular inmate, it’s anyone’s guess.
That’s because the Lea County Detention Center doesn’t keep track of the immigration status of inmates, and it no longer cooperates with federal immigration authorities in the manner it did just a couple years ago.
Lea County leaders said the county jail’s shift in federal immigration cooperation doesn’t mean Lea County is a “sanctuary county,” although they acknowledge standard procedures of cooperation have diminished.
Dianna Luce, the district attorney for New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial District, met with the News-Sun in October regarding her re-election bid. During the lenghty interview that covered numerous local law enforcement issues, Luce disclosed the shift in immigration cooperation at the Lea County Detention Center.
“Pre-all of the media covering immigration issues, our Lea County Detention Center stopped honoring ICE holds several years ago,” Luce said. “They quit doing it years ago, so they won’t hold people on an ICE hold.”
Luce said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and other federal agencies frequently assist local law enforcement, and that her office is more than willing to cooperate with them. But as for the county jail, it is not as cooperative as it was just a couple years ago.
“Right now, our office cooperates with ICE and with the feds in assisting wherever we can,” Luce said. “If they want a list of what felony warrants my office has pending, we’ll run that report for them, we’ll cooperate. They do coordinate with us and other law enforcement. They make us aware of their operations, and they’ll assist, especially like if we’re looking for someone and we know that they’re not a citizen and we have a warrant out for somebody and we’re trying to find them, they will assist us. The FBI, they’re all very good partners with us for public safety.”
Luce said ICE officials commonly cooperate with her office and local police agencies in drug cases.
“A lot of times they’re not in jail, so they’re going to come pick them up wherever they are,” she said. “Really and truly, we’re close enough to the border to have the influx of people, so there’s enough of it happening.”
But the cooperation between local and federal law enforcement agencies has shifted regarding the detentions of undocumented immigrants in local jails. The Lea County Detention Center now requires more than an ICE detainer, otherwise known as an ICE hold. The jail now requires active warrants to house inmates, which are much less than common than ICE hold requests.
“We understand that maybe some other state agencies, whether they’re law enforcement or not, the state itself, the governor doesn’t want to cooperate with that. That’s their choice,” Luce said. “But it’s a public safety issue. If you have someone here that’s committed a violent crime, they should be held accountable for whatever that is.”
Luce said her office has no authority over immigration policy at the Lea County jail, which is maintained and operated by Lea County.
“That’s something to ask the county commissioners,” Luce said. “I have no control over that. I just know they don’t hold them.”
Conservative-leaning Lea County’s diminished cooperation with federal immigration authorities was a surprise to some, including Lea County Commissioner Dean Jackson.
“That’s the first I had ever heard about it,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know anything about this. That is probably my fault, but we get slammed with so much, it’s never been brought up, so therefore I never knew anything about it until you called.”
Lea County manager Mike Gallagher and Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton explained the county jail honors ICE warrants, but the jail no longer honors detainer requests from ICE. Gallagher said ICE detainers were previously honored for up to 48 hours to allow ICE to investigate a person and determine if there was enough information to obtain an arrest warrant for immigration violations.
Gallagher said Lea County’s shift in policy was a result of a federal court case in Albuquerque.
“As recently as March 2017, a federal judge in Albuquerque approved a settlement in a case involving San Juan County and its detention of individuals based solely on an ICE detainer request,” Gallagher said. “San Juan County agreed to pay $340,000 to the lead plaintiff, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, and plaintiff’s attorneys. San Juan also agreed to pay an additional $2,000 to each individual who made a qualifying claim of being held solely on an ICE detainer request.”
Further complicating things, Gallagher said there are significant legal differences between an arrest warrant and an ICE warrant.
“Arrest warrants are generally issued by a judge that authorizes law enforcement to take someone accused of a crime into custody,” he said. “Probable cause is the standard for a judge to issue an arrest warrant. ICE warrants are not issued by judges based on a probable cause determination. A local government that detains an individual solely on the basis of an ICE detainer or ICE warrant does so with potential liability for a violation of the individual’s constitutional rights.”
Gallagher said the Lea County Detention Center now requires a warrant from ICE to hold someone. He said the county jail does not know the immigration status of inmates unless notified by the arresting agency, and therefore there is no way for the public to know the immigration status of inmates, or the proportion of illegal immigrants within the jail’s population.
“The information the LCDC has on a detainee is solely based on the information that the LCDC receives from the law enforcement agency,” Gallagher said. “The LCDC would know which detainees have been sentenced to the LCDC for illegal entry into the United States if such information is reported to the LCDC by a law enforcement agency.
“The LCDC relies on the information that is reported/provided by law enforcement agencies, to include ICE, local agencies and U.S. Marshals Service for all persons that are received by LCDC. LCDC does not have jurisdictional authority in determining the immigration status of a person. LCDC is required to safely house all persons that are in the custody of LCD and LCDC does have a duty to report any and all illegal criminal activity to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”
Asked specifically about a percentage of the jail’s current inmates who in the U.S. illegally, Gallagher said that is not public information.
“We would have a percentage of the jail’s current detainees who are in the U.S. illegally specifically to the (U.S. Marshals Service) detainees with information reported,” he said. “We would not have that information for the jail’s county detainees because we do not receive that information for those county detainees.”
There is also no public disclosure of the names of jail inmates who are in the U.S. illegally.
“Specifically, to USMS detainees, we would require permission to release that information if we had that information,” Gallagher said. “Non-USMS detainees, we would not have that information.”
Right to know
Jackson, vice chair of the Lea County Commission, said he believes the public has a right to know the citizenship status of jail inmates.
“I think it should be,” he said. “I think everything government does should be public knowledge. The citizens are paying for everything, the government doesn’t pay for crap.”
It’s often said in the national media that multiple studies have shown that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes in the United States than American citizens. Jackson said local information about jail populations could add balance to that discussion.
“Would it be helpful if we knew the immigration status of everybody in our jail? Yes, I think so, because if they’re illegals, they need to ship them back,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that is the opinion of the administration in Santa Fe, but I know in conservative Lea County, it is.”
Gallagher noted the county jail posts a roster online daily of the names of jail inmates. Multiple state and federal agencies also receive copies of the jail rosters.
“The LCDC is cooperative with ICE as the roster is publicly available, it is also available at ICE’s request, ICE has been permitted to interview detainees and to ask LCDC staff about a detainee,” Gallagher said.
Helton said he understood that some Lea County residents would like to know the proportion of jail inmates in the U.S. illegally, but he was reluctant to give his opinion on Lea County jail policy.
“I’m not in that chain of command to why they made the policies that they did,” the sheriff said. “I’m not going to give you my opinion because I don’t want to undermine their operation. I try to work well with them, they have a hard job as it is. I support the warden over there and what they’re doing and how they’ve got to go about doing it.”
Not a sanctuary
The sheriff was adamant that Lea County is not a sanctuary county for illegal immigrants.
“We can do a courtesy hold as long as there is a warrant in place,” said Helton, noting the counties, not the sheriffs, maintain and operate county jails in New Mexico. “We just do not hold people in our jails for no reason. We are not a sanctuary county. We still make the notifications when somebody’s arrested.
“We cannot hold anybody in that jail for no reason other than ICE asks us to hold them. They have to issue us a warrant for that person for us to hold them. In the old days, they would say ‘Hey sheriff, so-and-so is in your jail. Can you hold him for 72 hours while we try to think of what we’re going to do with him?’”
Helton said some jurisdictions in the United States are completely prevented by local leaders from cooperating with ICE.
“I’ve seen in the news where some of those jurisdictions won’t even let ICE come into their city,” Helton said. “I don’t like the characterization of a sanctuary county if we don’t hold them. I’m saying we just don’t hold people in our facility that don’t have an active warrant. We don’t do that to our normal citizens. And we’re not going to do that to illegal citizens.”
Jackson also said a sanctuary county label would be unfair to Lea County.
“I’ve known Sheriff Helton for a long time and I know he has the same opinion a lot of us do about needing to get illegals off the street,” Jackson said.
Helton said illegal immigration remains a hot-button topic.
“I know the sentiment here, but I would say that Lea County Detentions are running under the current case law that’s guiding them,” the sheriff said. “But I would say we are not a sanctuary county or city. We’re still doing some of the things that we’re supposed to be doing and we do hold them, they just have to have a warrant.
“I think it’s still a long way from the designation of sanctuary county because we’re still doing the notifications. We’re just not holding anybody for that 72 hours to determine whether they did anything wrong. That’s it, just give us the warrant.”
Helton said immigration law enforcement is not a priority for the Lea County Sheriff’s Office.
“I try to keep my deputies focused on answering their calls and protecting the citizens. We don’t drive around checking immigration papers. It’s not my job, it’s not what we’re about,” the sheriff said. “We can all agree that there’s probably a lot of illegal aliens in Lea County, but they can also be a victim of a crime and they can also be a witness of a crime. And we don’t go out checking immigration papers. That’s not my job as the sheriff and that’s not the job of the deputies. We don’t go looking for it. We don’t ask for immigration papers. From time to time we come across people that are probably illegal in the course of a criminal investigation or a traffic investigation, and we abide by what we’re supposed to do. We contact ICE if we can’t identify anybody and if they feel that that person needs to be held for a warrant, they they’ll issue a warrant for him.”
Helton said he understands that victims of crimes might want to know the immigration status of those accused, but he said he could see problems with making that information public.
“It’s very hot-button, even for us,” he said. “But I don’t turn away ICE and we cooperate with them and do what we’re legally bound to do based on our case law in the state.”