Communication breakdown: NM officials in the dark about ICE deportation program

Family of woman allegedly slain by illegal immigrant to file lawsuit over sanctuary city policy


The federal government’s one-year-old plan to work with local law enforcement to deport violent illegal aliens nabbed by police and held in lockups is news to jail officials in one key border state, according to one top administrator, who said his colleagues in New Mexico only know what reporters have told them.

The Priority Enforcement Program, rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security one year ago, implemented in July and later cited repeatedly as the agency defended its handling of violent illegal immigrants in the wake of several high-profile crimes, is virtually unknown in a state that shares a 180-mile border with Mexico, said Matt Elwell, director of the Luna County Detention Center and chairman of the New Mexico Counties Detention Administrators Affiliate.

“We found out about the PEP program from local media who were inquiring about it,” said Elwell. “We’re still waiting for an explanation from ICE as to how it works.”

“We found out about the PEP program from local media who were inquiring about it. We’re still waiting for an explanation from ICE as to how it works.”

- Matt Elwell, Luna County (N.M.) Detention Center

The program targets illegal immigrant criminals in “specific, limited circumstances,” prioritized by offense. It relies on local law enforcement to notify federal officials before a convicted suspect is released, as opposed to granting local authorities power to hold them after their release until ICE agents come for them.

Only one of 21 jail administrators in the state were aware of the PEP program, when Elwell conducted an informal survey, he said. Jail administrators would be the key local officials that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from DHS would work with in conducting the program, which DHS touts as the new wave in prioritizing threats to national security, public safety, and border security from illegal aliens arrested in the U.S.

Elwell’s jail is some 40 miles from the Mexican border, and while he says he has had a good relationship with the regional ICE agents, he said they weren’t familiar with the program, either. Elwell was still under the assumption ICE would request a hold on any illegal alien booked into the jail. He said each day a list of illegal alien prisoners is faxed to the local ICE office.

Others shared Elwell's view.

“They haven’t gotten the message to us yet,” said Clay Corn, administrator of the Chaves County Detention Center in Roswell, told the Albuquerque Journal. “I think mutual cooperation between our agencies would certainly benefit both of us since we are the agency that would be holding these prisoners.

One possible reason for the lack of communication is that ICE agents began meeting with New Mexico sheriffs this past summer, but it is county administrators who manage the state's detention centers. They, and not sheriffs, are in the best position to notify ICE about an inmate’s pending release.

Communication appears more organized in Texas and Arizona, where getting the word out to sheriffs appeared to have worked. According to a spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, jurisdictions received a letter from Texas Commission on Jail Standards on Nov. 25, 2014 stating the Priority Enforcement Program was replacing the Secure Communities Program.

At the Pima County Adult Detention Complex in Tucson, Ariz., officials there say while communication with ICE has been fluid in recent years, the alleged murder in July of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier by a criminal illegal alien who had been deported five previous times has heightened their vigilance in making the system work.

“That incident really honed us in as to what could go wrong with the system,” said Lt. Noah Adkins, custody records operations commander for the 2,000-inmate facility.

Adkins said his office is vigilant to contact ICE when an inmate who is in the country illegally is poised for release. While ICE doesn’t pick up all of them, “if there is any reason for them to pick someone up based on PEP, they will,” he said.

In a statement, ICE officials said the new policy allows everyone, even sanctuary cities, to work with federal authorities to deport dangerous and violent illegal immigrant criminals.

"ICE is committed to focusing on smart, effective immigration enforcement and makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a risk to national security or public safety," said the statement. "With the implementation of the Priority Enforcement Program in July 2015, many law enforcement agencies, including some large jurisdictions, are now once again cooperating with ICE. DHS continues to make significant strides in building partnerships with local law enforcement and community leaders through PEP to ensure a common-sense approach that focuses enforcement resources on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security while also taking into account important community policing needs."

The current federal program ranks criminals held in local jails to determine which are priorities for deportation. First to go are anyone who is a threat to national security, border security and public safety. Lesser emphasis is placed on those convicted of three or more misdemeanors other than traffic offenses, and immigration violators. Finally, the least priority is placed on those who've been issued a deportation order on or before January 1, 2014. It is up to local law enforcement to notify ICE 48 hours before a high-priority person is to be released.

Under the old, "Secure Communities" program, law enforcement could issue an “ICE hold” and detain illegal immigrants – even prior to conviction - up to 48 hours beyond whatever a judge previously ordered while ICE determines if that person should be deported.

In scrapping the old program, Johnson said in a 2010 memo that it was “widely misunderstood” and “its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws.” Johnson said problems with the program contributed to several communities declaring themselves “sanctuary cities,” and refusing to work with the federal immigration officials to have criminals deported. He also cited court cases that rejected the authority of state and local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants based on federal detainers issued under the Secure Communities program.

“Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program, and many have issued executive orders or signed laws prohibiting such cooperation,” Johnson said.

Regardless of what DHS calls its current program, Elwell was dubious that they are truly interested in deporting most illegal immigrant criminals.

“I no longer hold the suspects, I notify ICE when they are released and either they come or they don’t,” Elwell said, noting that most of the time they don’t.

Offiicals at the New Mexico Corrections Department said there have been just 108 known deportations over the past five years. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center 2010 report, there are 85,000 illegal immigrants living in New Mexico.