Statewide immigration rights group says DHS memos could jeopardize safety of undocumented immigrants

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FARMINGTON — San Juan County law enforcement officials say memos issued by the Department of Homeland Security about the enforcement of immigration laws will have little to no effect on their operations locally.

But a statewide immigration rights group believes the memos could jeopardize the safety of undocumented immigrants, including families with mixed immigration statuses.

The DHS issued two memos on Feb. 20 about enforcing immigration laws and policies, along with border security between the U.S. and Mexico. One memo expands a federal program for local or state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.

But the heads of local law enforcement agencies said the memos won't impact their day-to-day operations.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said the federal government has wanted police to build trust with their communities, and that is something Farmington police take seriously.

"We're not really enthusiastic for them to begin participating in anything that targets a certain group in our community," Hebbe said.

Hebbe, along with Bloomfield police Chief Randy Foster and San Juan County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Shane Ferrari, said their agencies help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel if they are searching in their jurisdictions for a suspect who might have an immigration detainer.

One of the federal memos states DHS departments "will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement." That effectively puts almost all undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation proceedings.

Elsa Lopez is a San Juan County community organizer with the immigration rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, which is based in Santa Fe. She said the memos and President Donald Trump's executive orders could create an environment for racial profiling and civil rights violations.

Lopez praised Hebbe and Farmington police for their community outreach with undocumented immigrants.

But she claimed the Sheriff's Office has collaborated with ICE and shared information about residents with an ICE agent.

Sheriff Ken Christesen said that claim was "nonsense." He said the Sheriff's Office does not conduct immigration raids, and his deputies focus on criminals, not on residents, including undocumented immigrants, who abide by the law.

"We have a lot of people that are illegal aliens here. When they commit crimes, we always pass that information to immigration," Christesen said.

In 2015, 3.7 percent of San Juan County's population was foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Lopez said that number includes legal and undocumented immigrants.

Ferrari, Foster and Hebbe said officers with their respective departments do not ask a victim's immigration status when speaking about a case.

Ferrari said Sheriff's Office deputies ask suspects arrested on suspicion of crimes about their nationality. He said the reason for that is to inform suspects' consulates about the alleged crime. He said police also ask suspects without identification for their nationality so authorities can run their fingerprints through federal databases to check whether they have previously been deported.

"We don't ask victims what their immigration status is," Ferrari said. "We don't want them to think that is something we do enforce."

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Hebbe said he wants residents to feel free to call Farmington police without worrying about their immigration status. He said if somebody is a victim of a crime, their status will not be an issue.

A rally in support of undocumented immigrants will take place in Farmington this weekend. The "Welcome the Stranger" will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday outside the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park at 3041 E. Main St.

Local progressive group Step by Step Indivisible is organizing the rally to support the local immigrant community, said event organizer Stephen Clarke.

He said those who attend will have a chance to share stories of their families who immigrated to the U.S.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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