Governments within NM would no longer enter detention contracts with ICE under proposed legislation

Governor says poor conditions at Torrance County facility need to be fixed

By: - January 27, 2023 5:00 am
An aerial view of the American flags flying over an international bridge as immigrants line up next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum on Dec. 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas.

An aerial view of the American flags flying over an international bridge as immigrants line up next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum on Dec. 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by John Moore / Getty Images)

About a decade ago, Itzayana Banda’s father called to tell her how horribly officials at the Otero County Processing Center were treating him and how he couldn’t stand it anymore. Eight months later, she said in an interview, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported him. It was another 10 years before Banda got to see him again.

He may have never gone through that treatment if the county government hadn’t allowed ICE to incarcerate immigrants there. 

State legislators are trying to outlaw such agreements. Democratic Sens. Gerald Ortiz y Pino and Moe Maestas introduced legislation on Monday that would prohibit governments within the state of New Mexico from entering or renewing detention contracts with ICE starting in 2024.

That means the Otero County Processing Center — which racked up extensive abuse complaints and allegations of inhumane treatment and cruel conditions — could no longer hold hundreds of immigrants. 

Banda is now a spokesperson for the New Mexico Dream Team, an immigration advocacy group. She said her father told her how terribly officials treated him in Otero County.

“My dad would say that they would get treated like animals,” she said.

No comment

ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said the agency won’t comment on pending legislation.

Ortiz y Pino said he was inspired to create the legislation after people approached him with concerns about how ICE treats asylum-seekers. 

Federal inspectors told ICE in March to relocate people detained in Torrance County because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Five months later, in August, an asylum-seeker from Brazil died by suicide there, and attorneys said he was being held in “horrific conditions.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a question about poor detention conditions at a public safety news conference on Wednesday.

Lujan Grisham said she recently told Department of Homeland Security Cabinet Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that what’s happening at Torrance County Detention Center in New Mexico needs to improve, particularly if the federal government wants the state to keep licensing those facilities.

“I’m appalled at what’s going on in Torrance County, and I need that fixed,” she said.

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Uriel Rosales, a field organizer with the New Mexico Dream Team, was raised in Chaparral, N.M., home to ICE’s processing center. A DACA recipient, Rosales said he wants to see the immigrant detention in his community gone because of the reports of inhumane treatment there and at the other facilities.

The ultimate goal, Rosales said, is “to stop having inhumane conditions in detention centers in New Mexico.”

Sophia Genovese is a senior attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. She said a large number of the immigrants coming to New Mexico are seeking asylum.

“They don’t deserve this treatment,” she said. “No one deserves this treatment.”

The bill’s prospects

Genovese said this bill could eliminate a space where ICE can hold up to 1,000 immigrants. That’s just at Otero County Processing Center, she said, which detains the most immigrants in the state.

It could be more difficult to enforce a full shutdown at the other two detention centers in New Mexico. Genovese said the facility in Otero County is the only one where the county owns the land and the building, while the other two in Torrance and Cibola Counties are owned and operated by the private company CoreCivic.

So, she said, while the legislation would end the contracts ICE has with the counties in 2024, the federal agency could then just cut the county governments out altogether in Torrance and Cibola and contract directly with CoreCivic.

However, Genovese said the Torrance and Cibola detention centers each house fewer than 100 immigrants, while Otero usually holds around 500 or 600 people at a time.

The Torrance and Cibola facilities are primarily filled with state prisoners, Ortiz y Pino said. If ICE wanted to move more immigrants to those counties and skirt the state law, Ortiz y Pino said CoreCivic could no longer contract with the state, meaning those facilities would no longer be allowed to hold New Mexico prisoners.

That would be difficult, Ortiz y Pino said, since the bulk of CoreCivic’s job in those prisons — under the company’s contracts with the N.M. Corrections Department — is overseeing state prisoners. 

Legislators tried to pass this kind of legislation in New Mexico four years ago, and Maestas said they’ve learned a lot. He said the measure has better chances this time.

“We’re hoping to have a great conversation,” Maestas said. “We think it’s reasonable and phased in. But New Mexico should not participate in mass incarceration that ICE is doing these days.”

Genovese said it’s likely that the bill will pass due to the Legislature’s Democratic majority, as well as community support. “When your constituents support it, I know our New Mexico politicians listen to them and vote in that direction,” she said.

Virginia, New Jersey and Illinois recently enacted similar detainment legislation. Genovese said this is becoming a national movement.

“It’s a growing trend of states saying, ‘We will not jeopardize the health and safety of those within our jurisdiction by subjecting them to inhumane treatment at immigration detention facilities,’” she said.

Financial worries

The bill sponsors said opponents of the legislation will likely be anyone who profits from detention centers, like private companies or surrounding towns.

But Genovese said that’s not a strong argument against the bill because the facilities might not really be that financially helpful, research has shown.

New Mexico State University anthropology Professor Nathan Craig was an expert witness for Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) in 2021 when lawmakers were attempting to end private prisons in the state. He said detention centers in rural areas don’t help the local economy as much as people believe, because many workers are coming from more distant metropolitan areas.

Indeed, most of the guards at the Chaparral facility live in El Paso, Texas, Ortiz y Pino said. For those New Mexicans who do lose their jobs, he said, there are plenty of correctional facilities elsewhere in the state that desperately need workers. Maestas backed that up.

“When jails or prisons close down, the town doesn’t close down,” he said.


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.