Immigration Debate Heats Up Council Chambers
Two resolutions—one to boycott city business with Arizona and another aimed at Mayor Richard Berry's agreement with federal immigration authorities—failed at the Monday, May 17 Council meeting. More than 100 people attended the meeting to decry the mayor's plan to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into the Prisoner Transport Center. There, agents will check the immigration status of everyone arrested for any reason.
The Downtown transport center is where arrestees are taken before going to the Metropolitan Detention Center on the city’s far Westside. Existing policy allows federal agents to review the immigration status of people after they are booked into Westside jail. With the change, ICE can check immigration status before people get a chance to post bail.
The boycott and the move to rescind the ICE agreement were sponsored by Councilors Ken Sanchez and Rey Garduño, but both resolutions were shot down on 5-4 votes. Democratic Councilors Debbie O’Malley, Isaac Benton, Sanchez and Garduño supported the measures, while Republican Councilors Brad Winter, Michael Cook, Dan Lewis, Don Harris and Trudy Jones sided with the Republican mayor.
Councilor Jones said she does not support a ban on doing business with Arizona because it is not appropriate for Albuquerque to get involved in boycotting other municipalities over their political decisions.
Benton questioned the fact that not everyone who ends up in handcuffs is a criminal. “What happened to the presumption of innocence?” he asked. He noted that a percentage of arrestees are innocent and should not have their citizenship questioned.
The city’s Public Safety Director Darren White said the mayor’s initiative is not a policy decision but simply a change in the booking procedures. “If you are here legally and not a criminal then you don’t have anything to worry about,” he said.
Garduño countered that political rhetoric does not equal good public policy or a substitute for facts. The connection between crime and immigration status is rhetorical, he said, and the ICE agreement is mayoral grandstanding. He reminded everyone that there is a provision for arrestee immigration checks already in place at the jail.
Councilors also questioned why the mayor did not talk with the Council before announcing this change. Some said they first heard about it through a news release. White said the mayor made an executive decision and did not need to talk with the Council. Sanchez said that is not how productive communication should work between a mayor and a City Council.
White said a couple of meetings were held to discuss immigration issues during Berry’s transition in November 2009, and he pointed out that Councilor Garduño was part of those discussions. Garduño fired back that Berry did not seek the opinions of the Council or immigrant rights groups before making his decision. Garduño, Sanchez, O’Malley and Benton said the mayor’s change violates earlier city policies, causes divisiveness in a city with a large Hispanic population, invites racial profiling and makes all immigrants afraid to go to police—even when they're victims of crimes or witnesses to crimes.
Rachel LaZar, an advocate with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, said immigrant programs are feeling the impact of this change, and victims are not coming forward for help or with information because of the fear of being deported.
“If you are here legally and not a criminal then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Public Safety Director Darren White
Others noted that most illegal immigrants are hardworking, law-abiding people who are here trying to better their lives. Some spoke of how this agreement makes Albuquerque look “backward and ignorant” to the rest of the nation.
But not all of the comments railed against the ICE plan. A handful of speakers favored stricter immigration policies, saying people who are here illegally should be caught and deported. Another resident said the Council should just pledge allegiance to Mexico instead of the United States.
One man said he supports the change because he does not want undocumented immigrant criminals coming over here from Arizona. He added that he knows they are already on their way.
Another said he represented 10 city neighborhood associations who are in favor of the ICE agreement. He added that they are not anti-immigrant, and they support those who come to New Mexico legally.
Councilor Sanchez said the immigration law in Arizona and what the mayor is initiating undermine the U.S. Constitution.
Councilor Cook said he dug ditches with undocumented workers and became friends with some, but he does not support a boycott or rescinding the new procedure for immigration checks. For the most part, the rest of the right-leaning councilors were quiet during the meeting, limiting their participation to the vote.
Councilor O’Malley summed up her feelings on the issue by saying she is disappointed by the mayor and the administration for being mean-spirited, hateful, and causing such a divide in the city and among the Council for no apparent reason. “My office has received some of the most disgusting comments you can think of over this issue. We have had some really racist comments made,” she said. “It is very, very disappointing this happened this way.”
In between debates on the hot topic, the Council managed to get to other business. It extended the contract with Arizona-based Redflex, the red-light camera company, until October. By then a study on the effectiveness of the cameras should be completed. The Council also approved the appointment of Amy Bailey as the new city clerk. Bailey said she has worked in several elections for the national and state Republican parties. She assured the Council she would run fair and impartial city elections. Bailey replaces longtime city attorney and clerk Randy Autio. The Council also amended the city’s merit raise and benefit policy to help ensure that there will not be large retirement payouts for employees’ unused sick, vacation and other leave.