By Dan Boyd
Some New Mexico lawmakers expressed support Monday for reining in private prison growth in the state -- or doing away with private prisons altogether -- amid a roiling national debate over housing immigrant detainees. During the meeting of an interim legislative committee at the Roundhouse, several legislators suggested New Mexico could follow in the steps of California, which has enacted laws blocking the expansion of private prisons run for immigrant detainees and empowering state officials to inspect them.
"If we don't take action as a Legislature, we are committing a criminal act," said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, during Monday's hearing, which drew a crowd of roughly 200.
But other lawmakers questioned the state's options in overseeing the two private detention centers with current federal contracts to hold immigrant detainees in New Mexico: the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral and Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sued California to try to overturn some of its immigration-related laws, arguing the state is interfering with federal matters.
"I think we need to figure out what authority we have before we go down that road," said Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican.
Meanwhile, New Mexico's burgeoning debate could play out in a state that's relied on private prisons for at least two decades. Overall, about half of New Mexico's inmates -- or about 3,500 -- are housed in private prisons, which is among the highest rates in the nation.
The exact number of immigrant detainees held in New Mexico is not clear. A state Corrections Department spokeswoman said the agency does not track the data, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond Monday to questions about the two detention centers.
An attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Immigrant Law Center said the capacity of the Otero and Cibola County detention centers is around 1,100 inmates apiece.
'I was treated like a criminal'
Immigrants and asylum seekers from Mexico, Uganda, Congo, Nicaragua and other countries that spent time in the detention centers gave lawmakers a grim description of their living conditions.
Carlos Medrano, a Mexican national who spent time in the Otero County Processing Center, said corrections officers treat detainees with a lack of respect and do not provide health care for them.
Other detainees said they were given expired food, not allowed to go outside for days and handled like "cows at a dairy."
"I was treated like a criminal," said Joselin Mendez, a transgender woman who fled Nicaragua in an attempt to escape repeated abuse in her home country and was later housed in the Cibola County detention center.
The legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee also invited Ronald Vitiello, the acting director of ICE, and the wardens of both privately run immigrant detention facilities to testify at Monday's hearing.
Both wardens declined the invitations but offered to give lawmakers a tour of the detention centers, and the ICE official never responded, said Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the committee.
Ann Morse, director of the immigrant policy project at the National Conference of State Legislatures, did attend. She said state legislators nationwide are having to make immigration-related policy decisions because of outdated federal immigration laws.
In addition, immigrant advocacy groups have raised concerns about abuse in the privately run detention centers and the difficulty of finding capable legal representation.
"ICE and the federal government have shown time and again they are unwilling or unable to ensure human rights in the detention facilities," said Adriel Orozco, an attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
Democrats return donations
The issue of immigrant detention centers has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, largely due to President Donald Trump's now-halted policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally.
Several prominent New Mexico Democrats have in recent weeks returned campaign contributions they received from private prison companies or donated them to nonprofit groups.
But some lawmakers whose districts encompass the private prisons said Monday that the prisons provide jobs that would be difficult to replace.
"The village of Milan is really small, and economically we are really hurting," said Rep. Eliseo Alcón, a Democrat. "We have to figure out a way to keep people employed and alive."
Meanwhile, Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat, said it was disrespectful for ICE officials not to attend the hearing.
He also said migrants should not be treated like criminals for coming to the United States.
"These people are fleeing extortion, murder, rape, torture," he said. "I can tell you I would do the same thing in a heartbeat."
The committee could vote later this year on whether to endorse any prison-related legislation for next year's 60-day session, which will begin in January.
(c)2018 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)