Immigration checks done at jail

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A new prisoner-processing facility will check the status of every person arrested in Albuquerque

By Tim Korte

ALBUQUERQUE — A new prisoner-processing facility will check the immigration status of every person arrested in New Mexico’s largest city, but Albuquerque’s mayor on Thursday denied any effort to shadow Arizona’s tough crackdown on illegal immigrants.

“This has nothing to do with immigration law. This has to do with keeping the streets of Albuquerque safe,” Mayor Richard Berry said after the facility was unveiled.

The biggest difference between the current

booking facility and the new 5,000-square-foot site is that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents have a station inside, where they can check any prisoner’s immigration status.

ICE agents work at jails elsewhere, but Police Chief Ray Schultz said the Albuquerque facility is believed to be the first to have a station inside the booking area where those agents can check fingerprints or photos to examine a prisoner’s immigration status.

Bill Jepsen, assistant director of ICE’s office for New Mexico and West Texas, said the facility will make work easier for agents because they’ll maintain a 24-hour presence.

He said currently, up to 40 illegal immigrants are detained each week at the Bernalillo County jail, but others are sometimes released before their immigration status can be checked.

Critics of the Arizona law, set to take effect July 29, have complained that it encourages racial profiling and is unconstitutional.

It requires police enforcing other laws to question a person about his or her immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the United States illegally and makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally.

Berry said complaints about racial profiling would be off the mark because every prisoner at the Albuquerque facility will stop at the ICE station. He said the immigration status of anyone booked for a crime “is always pertinent.”

While campaigning for mayor last year, Berry criticized a city policy that characterized Albuquerque as a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants.

“There was an ambiguity in the policy,” Berry said. “They knew that they may or may not be checked when they were arrested. That was the concern I had. This is a well balanced way to address it.”

Berry also insisted he won’t tolerate racial profiling.

He noted the agreement with federal officials to work at the new facility was reached months ago, long before Arizona’s law made headlines, and said Albuquerque’s approach protects crime victims and witnesses, who won’t be questioned about immigration status.

“Immigrants from any nation are welcome in Albuquerque,” Berry said. “Criminals are not.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said his group is concerned that the program will erode trust between local law enforcement and the immigrant community. He said the public typically doesn’t make a distinction between police and jail authorities.

“I appreciate Mayor Berry’s assurances regarding racial profiling, but we will be especially vigilant now for signs that Albuquerque police are arresting people because of race or that this program is only being applied to Hispanic arrestees,” Simonson said.

Schultz said representatives from other cities, including Seattle, Pittsburgh and Oakland, Calif., have visited to learn more about Albuquerque’s model.

The new facility isn’t a jail — merely the first stop for anyone arrested by Albuquerque police, county sheriff’s deputies or University of New Mexico police. After processing, prisoners are loaded into vans for transport to the jail.