Recent events in southern New Mexico connected to the Bush Administration’s peculiarly-named “Operation Stonegarden” cry out for much closer analysis in the press than they have been given so far. They are the tip of a very ugly iceberg that ought to be demolished before it causes an even bigger disaster.Without much notice, the federal government was authorized last year to make large cash payments to every U.S. county government along the U.S.-Mexico border. These payments were to cover the extra cost of law enforcement for issues related to undocumented immigrants crossing in increasing numbers.Otero County (home of Alamogordo) alone received in excess of $1.2 million for its share of this windfall. We aren’t talking chicken feed. To cash-strapped local governments, the dangling federal checks must have seemed like manna from heaven. Certainly none have balked at snapping them up and spending them before the Feds could change their minds.In return, all the guys from Washington expected was a little brotherly “cooperation” in the task of rounding up and deporting Mexicans, who were in this country without the benefit of papers. And therein lies the problem. As the mayor’s office in Albuquerque has determined, you can get into a particularly treacherous minefield when you attempt to mix the very different kinds of authority wielded by the federal border patrol (or ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and by local police or sheriff’s officers.It may have provoked some fanciful political rhetoric on portable billboards paid for by the Republican Party and its state chairman, Col. Weh. But the decision by our City Council, Mayor Martin Chavez and APD Chief Schultz to not confuse those two types of police authority was a very wise one. The city determined APD will not automatically turn over to immigration those it comes in contact with who may not have legal residence or citizen status. Because of this call, Albuquerque will avoid lawsuits and costly legal entanglements of the sort that now threaten to make Otero County officials rue the day they agreed to hop into bed with the Feds.Local officials recognize there is far more to be gained from building trust with all residents, regardless of immigration status, than from deporting a few in showcase raids. If illegal immigrants believe calling the police will result in being turned over to la migra, they will simply not call the police. Crimes will go unreported, witnesses will vanish and victims of domestic violence will suffer in anonymity. None of those results benefit the community. Mayor Chavez and his administration are to be commended for realizing this basic concept.Local police shouldn’t enforce every single law. We have long recognized that as a common sense proposition: Specialized enforcement authorities were developed to enforce specialized laws. The cop on the beat doesn’t attempt to enforce zoning ordinances or liquor license violations—or the Federal law that warns us not to remove those little white tags from pillows and mattresses under threat of Federal prosecution.However, the mayor’s counterparts on the county commissions in Otero County haven’t quite grasped this important concept. Of course, the temptation of all that Federal money might have impaired their judgment. They signed on to “Operation Stonegarden” with a vengeance. What occurred next was a mess, pure and simple. The deputies set up phony “speed traps” in Chaparral, the largest unincorporated community in the state, an amalgamation of trailers, shanties and newer homes built on the outskirts of El Paso. Perhaps as many as 20,000 people live in Chaparral, many of them recent arrivals from Mexico. Chaparral is technically mostly in Doña Ana County, but the boundary with Otero County passes through it.Persons stopped by the “speed traps” (no radar was employed and no Anglo drivers were stopped) were questioned in Spanish. If they answered in that language, the deputies beckoned a couple of ICE agents who happened to be waiting nearby. If citizenship or residency papers couldn’t be produced, the ICE men took them into custody on the spot. Sixteen people were detained before community outcry blew the whistle on this ill-considered venture.If the detainees indicated they had children in school, the deputies accompanied them to the school to remove their kids, according to school officials. The sight of their parents sitting handcuffed in the principal’s office, coupled with their impending deportation, had to have shocked the children. The mind boggles at the genius who dreamt this scheme up. Since many of the children of undocumented residents are themselves citizens, born in this country and frequently never having even visited Mexico, “Operation Stonegarden” seems to have been designed to break up families. Cynics may note that most of the deported parents are probably back in Chaparral by now, so what lasting harm could have been done?The bigger question is what the heck was this supposed to accomplish? Cosmetic “law enforcement” of this sort may be intended only to send a message. Unfortunately, for many living in Chaparral, the message received was to stay as far away from local police officers as possible. That is no solution.
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