Migrants wait on the north bank of the Rio Grande, within an area marked by concertina wire, in May 2022. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux for Source NM)
Lawmakers blocked a bill in the 2023 legislative session that would’ve prohibited local New Mexico governments from hiring federal immigration officers to detain migrants, arguing that detention centers boost local economies.
That may not be entirely true, according to a recent report published by Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit that provides support for immigrants.
Immigration prisons often bring the promise of new jobs and economic development to rural areas, according to the report.
However, detention centers actually often employ people who aren’t local and are “focused on cutting costs and maximizing profits for executives and shareholders rather than investing in local communities,” the report states.
That’s why Innovation Law Lab encourages repurposing existing facilities into something else that would better financially support local communities.
Ariel Prado is a director at Innovation Law Lab. He said that’s exactly what needs to happen in New Mexico.
Prado said detention centers in New Mexico have a history of issues like medical neglect or due process violations for migrants who are detained. Innovation Law Lab wants to figure out how to end cycles of harm that detained migrants face, he said.
And it’s not just those detained, he said; the guards are also suffering because facilities are understaffed.
The Torrance County Detention Facility has been short staffed for years, as pointed out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the federal Homeland Security Department’s Office of the Inspector General.
Prado reiterated some of the report’s findings that people arguing for the detention system’s economic benefits — which he said really aren’t there — have a clouded view of the harms local centers are creating.
“The reliance on the prison economy creates an incentive to ignore the suffering and harm that occurs inside the prison,” he said.
Prado said the key to getting communities nearby to understand what’s really going on inside detention centers depends on connecting with those people.
That’s why he’s coordinating the Torrance County Listening Project, a volunteer-led program that talks to residents about detention centers and ways to replace them.
He said the project started up in early July, and volunteers did their first canvassing trip recently talking to people who live near the Torrance County detention center.
Prado said an important message from the report is that a transition away from detention centers needs to be led by the people living nearby.
“To do this right requires engaging with residents,” he said.
In bringing up alternatives to the detention center in Torrance County, Prado said residents suggested other things like food manufacturing or renewable energy projects could sustain economic growth in the community. He said that could also bring job training or apprenticeship programs to the area.
People that Prado and his volunteers talked to were initially surprised to learn that migrants and not inmates are held at the detention facility.
“There’s this disconnect between the people in the prison and people who live just a couple of miles away,” he said.
Anna Trillo, an equal justice works fellow at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, grew up in Moriarty, about 15 minutes from the Torrance County Detention Facility. She said she doesn’t think a lot of residents really understand what’s going on at the center because people only see it as a prison.
“People assume right away that it’s criminals that have gone through our criminal justice system when really, as we know, it’s just immigration detention for what’s considered a civil offense,” she said. “So I think there’s just no education on it.”
She said state legislators are also disconnected with the communities they serve.
Both Democrats and Republicans, including those serving areas with detention centers, blocked the 2023 bill that would’ve barred local governments from entering or renewing detention contracts with federal immigration agencies.
“It was very disheartening and very hard to see just how politics work, honestly,” Trillo said.
She said detention center conditions will continue to get worse, and people will keep being harmed inside.
“These centers go completely against our values as New Mexicans,” she said. “I truly believe that New Mexico is a very welcoming community as a whole … And it’s really hard to see New Mexico treating immigrants this way.”
Prado said the end goal of the listening project is to have a plan for how the community can thrive independently of the detention center. He said it’s important for the local residents to have a firsthand understanding of what’s happening at the facilities.
“In an ideal world, we would be connecting people inside the detention center with the people who live close to the detention center,” he said, “and really help people understand what exactly is happening in their backyard.”
Trillo said it’ll take a significant effort to communicate detention center conditions with nearby residents, especially in rural areas.
“People cannot fathom what the people in immigration detention have been through,” she said, “not only in their own home countries, but also now what they’re suffering through being in these detention centers.”
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