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Immigrant Communities Win in N.M. as Court Protects Rights in Jail

Amid a federal crackdown on immigration, a U.S. court has strengthened the rights of immigrants in Northwest New Mexico, ruling that they can’t be kept at a county jail simply because federal immigration agents want to investigate their status.

Grassroots advocates with Somos Un Pueblo Unido of New Mexico appear in Farmington in January 2014, as they announce their lawsuit about the rights of immigrants in detention. Photo courtesy of Somos Un Pueblo Unido
Grassroots advocates with Somos Un Pueblo Unido of New Mexico are seen in Farmington in January 2014, as they announce their lawsuit about the rights of immigrants in detention. Photo courtesy of Somos Un Pueblo Unido

A settlement plan released during the week of March 13 would protect the rights of inmates at the San Juan County Detention Center.

Inmates will be informed they do not have to speak or meet with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and their immigration status and national origin would be handled confidentially, according to Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Their release also would not be shared with ICE agents in advance, the New Mexico-based social justice organization added.

The protections were part of the preliminary approval of a class action settlement issued by U.S. District Court Judge William Johnson on March 17. At the heart of that ruling is that the jail in Farmington, New Mexico, can’t hold inmates solely on the basis of an immigration “detainer,” which is a request by ICE to hold a person for the sole purpose of checking the individual’s immigration status.

That ruling, in turn, is the result of a three-year campaign and suit, when immigrant communities documented problems at the jail and organized people to respond, said Emmanuelle “Neza” Leal, a Somos Un Pueblo Unido spokesman. Under the ruling, people who were held on an immigration “detainer” request during the three years before the suit’s filing could receive compensation, according to the grassroots organization.

“This is a clear example of what is really happening is that immigrants are defending themselves and transforming their communities,” Leal said. “This is a message the immigrant community in San Juan is sending to the rest of the state and the country, that we will hold jails accountable for this unlawful practice.”

The settlement is not final, but immigrant families and social justice advocates are pleased with it. In August, officials will hold a hearing on granting final approval.

Looking ahead, the community is working with the police chief in Farmington, New Mexico on a new policy establishing that local officers would not ask about a person’s immigration status.

The issue of immigration “detainers,” which is affecting communities nationwide, remains in the news. During the week of March 20, sheriffs and city officials throughout the country took issue with how President Donald Trump characterized information about such requests on the local level.

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Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News, which is published by Marguerite Casey Foundation.


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