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New Mexico investigates immigration detention

Reports and testimony argue for stricter oversight of private facilities.


Last month, Roberto de Jesús González spoke to state legislators in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about his experience being held for three months in the Otero County Processing Center. “(I was) a victim of the private prison system,” he said — treated like an animal, poorly fed and given little respect by the guards. “This business is based on human suffering,” he told lawmakers. “That was my experience.”

He wasn’t alone. At the hearing, convened by the state’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee to consider better oversight of private detention facilities, a line of detainees formed behind de Jesús González to describe their own experiences with medical neglect, solitary confinement and spoiled food. All the while, they reminded legislators that they were either asylum seekers — meaning they hadn’t broken any laws and were seeking shelter from persecution or violence — or people who had been detained on civil charges. Leila, an asylum-seeker from Somalia, said she understood the government’s need for detention centers. But, she added, There should be some fairness in the way they treat people.”

Leila, an asylum seeker from Somalia, sits with attorney Adriel Orozco from the New Mexico Immigration Law Center as she addresses state lawmakers.
New Mexico In Depth

Asked for comment, Rodney King, spokesman for CoreCivic, the private contractor that runs the Cibola County Correctional Facility, said that his staff works hard to ensure that those in the facility “are treated respectfully and humanely.” The Otero County Processing Center could not be reached for comment.

As the Trump administration ramps up immigrant detention, renewed attention is being paid to privately run facilities like Otero. The New Mexico hearing made it clear that some states are beginning to question their role in the mistreatment of detainees, even though immigration enforcement and detention is, after all, in the purview of the federal government. But with new centers being proposed in places like Evanston, Wyoming, and Houston, Texas, local governments around the country are considering whether to renew their contracts with private entities. In New Mexico, legislators are contemplating how to create state oversight where possible, to ensure that allegations of abuse or mistreatment are met with enforcement.

“What can the legislature do as far as from a legal and jurisdictional question?” asked state Rep. Jim Dines, R. “It seems to me that if there are allegations of inhumane treatment to anybody … they deserve some action.”

At the Cibola County Correctional Center, the number of immigrant detainees fluctuates between 300 and 600 on any given day, according to Adriel Orozco, an attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. The Otero County Processing Center has the capacity to hold over 1,000 people. New Mexico is the first state to publicly reckon with its role in the private detention business. But other cities in Oregon, California and Texas have severed their contracts to house immigrants, and California has decided to limit its contracts with ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, blocking the expansion of immigrant detention both in local jails and in privately operated detention centers, and giving the state’s attorney general the power to inspect centers. 

The hearing comes on the heels of a report released in June by the Office of the Inspector General regarding ICE’s negligence in oversight. It made a case for stricter state monitoring, concluding that the agency failed to complete thorough inspections of facilities, and that, when deficiencies were noted, facilities were not held accountable. This “further diminishes the usefulness of inspections,” the report stated. In New Mexico, these findings followed yet another report on the Otero County Detention Center from December 2017 which revealed concerns over unsanitary bathrooms, the use of solitary confinement and the lack of working telephones.

There are a few steps New Mexico could take to address these issues, but they would require challenging federal authority, said Ann Morse, director of the Immigrant Policy Project for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan organization. One option could be to require state licensing of facilities, meaning that centers would have to abide by state laws and be subject to state-run inspections. This is already the framework for how children’s shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement operate. But, Morse said, that solution could backfire. “The federal government may look at this effort and say we will just put people on our (military) bases and on our land, where they don’t have any opportunity for state oversight.” Other measures could include the creation of a hotline for people to report abuses or to secure the ability to conduct audits of private detention facilities. 

Holding a hearing was just the first of many opportunities New Mexico state legislators will have over the coming months to address what many see as an urgent need to take action. “This is a very core important issue that until recently hadn’t really gotten a lot of attention,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D. “That needs to be addressed.”

Jessica Kutz is an Editorial Fellow at High Country News.