Advocacy group official says agency can't be trusted

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AZTEC — San Juan County Sheriff’s Office officials say undocumented immigrants should not be afraid to call the department and report crimes, but an advocacy group says immigrants can't trust the agency because of its association with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The federal immigration agency has an agent stationed at the San Juan County Sheriff's Office Lee Acres substation.

Capt. Brice Current said Sheriff’s Office employees do not ask about immigration status when they respond to reported crimes or when immigrants go to the Sheriff's Office building to report crimes.

“That’s not our job,” Current said. “Our job is to enforce the law.”

Current described ICE as a tool the federal government provides for the Sheriff's Office to identify undocumented immigrants and to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

He said undocumented immigrants without a criminal background will not be detained if they report a crime.

Undersheriff Shane Ferrari said the Sheriff's Office has not seen changes to local immigration enforcement policy since President Donald Trump took office. The Trump administration has come under criticism in some quarters for a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

The “zero-tolerance” policy and news that thousands of families had been separated at the border led to nationwide protests last week, including one in Farmington.

Ferrari said the Sheriff’s Office was told there would be more ICE agents sent to the area, but he said that has not happened.

Several of the protesters last week had signs equating the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office with ICE and a representative from Familias Unidas por Justicia, a local branch of the activist group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, criticized the Sheriff’s Office for having an ICE agent stationed at the Lee Acres substation.

Some immigrants at the Families Belong Together rally in Farmington on June 30 expressed fear about contacting law enforcement officials, and one of them claimed her son had been deported after a traffic stop on the way to the hospital with his pregnant wife.

"We just can't trust a sheriff's department that has ICE in their backyard," said Elsa Lopez, a community organizer for Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

She expressed concerns that the Sheriff's Office could share information with ICE agents and said if the Sheriff's Office wants to gain the trust of the immigrant community, it will need to end its relationship with ICE.

She said there have been multiple incidents in which law enforcement officials have shown up to investigate an incident, and someone not connected to the reported crime is deported.

Lopez said other law enforcement agencies, including the Farmington Police Department, have worked to improve trust with immigrants. She said Farmington created a policy that clearly states officers will not inquire about immigration status. Lopez said the Farmington Police Department will also sign off on U visas, which are visas for victims of crime and their families.

Ferrari said the Sheriff's Office does not sign the U visas because the purpose of the visa is to provide the victims with legal residency so they can be used as witnesses while crimes are prosecuted. He said the District Attorney's Office is better equipped to handle the visa requests.

Ferrari confirmed that a Sheriff’s Office deputy had been involved in the detention of the 27-year-old man whose mother spoke at the rally last week. Ferrari and Current identified the man as Eddy Bencomo Coronado and said law enforcement agencies in Phoenix had identified Bencomo as a gang member. They said the officer called ICE because Bencomo did not have any identification.

Ferrari and Current said the Sheriff’s Office will only contact the local ICE agent if they cannot identify a person.

They said if a deputy pulls over a vehicle, and the driver does not have identification, the deputy will call the ICE agent so they can identify the person and write a traffic citation. Current described the local ICE agent as a tool that the Sheriff’s Office can use to help identify people.

“It’s very frustrating when you can’t identify an individual,” Current said.

Bencomo's mother, Dora Coronado Pino, told The Daily Times her son grew up in the United States, and she is afraid he will be killed in Mexico. She said he has no family in Mexico, and her brother, who also was deported to Mexico, disappeared shortly after being deported. Bencomo's children and wife are U.S. citizens.

During the rally, she said her son's previous deportation record from Phoenix came up when he was stopped.

At a separate rally earlier this year, an immigrant said a Sheriff’s Office deputy asked her what her immigration status was and wanted to know her Social Security number.

Somos Un Pueblo Unido has created a Know Your Rights tip sheet for undocumented immigrants about their rights regarding ICE and law enforcement. The tip sheet is available on the organization’s website, somosunpueblounido.org

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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