By Marjorie Childress 6/26/09 3:10 AM
Richard "R.J." Berry at a press conference outside city hall.
ALBUQUERQUE — In the wake of a violent robbery at a crowded Denny’s restaurant on the West Side that left one person dead, Albuquerque mayoral candidate Richard “R.J.” Berry and the state Republican Party said this week that police policies regarding immigrants are partly to blame for the crimes.
At a press conference Wednesday, Berry said Albuquerque Police Department (APD) procedures are those of a “sanctuary city,” because officers are only permitted to inquire about an individual’s immigration status when it’s pertinent to a criminal investigation.
APD should instead operate under rules more like those of Bernalillo County, he said, which allow officers to report a suspected undocumented immigrant once an arrest is made, regardless of what the arrest was for.
“When police officers run across a situation where they think public safety is well served by inquiring, they should have the authority to do so,” Berry told the Independent after the press conference. “As mayor, I’ll return to common sense policy.”
Berry raised the issue in the context of the Denny’s robbery and murder, the suspects of which are undocumented immigrants who have had previous encounters with police. One suspect, Pablo Ortiz, had been arrested for DWI in May 2008; the arresting officer didn’t ask him about his immigration status. Ortiz spent 46 days in jail, was released and then agreed to “voluntary deportation.” He was sent back to El Salvador last August, but then returned to New Mexico, although authorities don’t know how or when.
The executive director of the state Republican Party, Ryan Cangiolosi, also weighed in on the issue, saying in a statement yesterday that the Denny’s incident was the “inadvertent fruit” of a policy change a few years ago that serves to “preclude police officers from inquiring about or seeking proof of an individual’s immigration status.”
APD changed its standard operating procedure in 2007 as part of a settlement of a 2005 lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The lawsuit alleged that the civil rights of three Del Norte High School students were violated when they were detained on campus until immigration officials could question them.
The updated policy allows police to question a person about his or her immigration status only if in the officer’s opinion it’s relevant to a criminal investigation or if the person has already been arrested.
Cangliosi said yesterday that the issue of relevance is a problem.
“One of the gang members allegedly involved in Saturday’s shooting was arrested in 2008,” he said. “Since he was arrested on the suspicion of driving while intoxicated, the officer did not believe the gang member’s immigration status was relevant and federal authorities were not notified.”
But Deborah James, spokeswoman for Mayor Martin Chavez, said blame in the Denny’s case lies with federal immigration authorities, who are supposed to check the immigration status of every person arrested and booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center, which is run by Bernalillo County. In the case of Ortiz, that apparently didn’t happen, she said.
“The mayor has asked them to have someone there on a more full-time basis,” James said. “We don’t have any authority over the jail. We make the arrest, but if immigration authorities aren’t following through, or if the courts let them go, we have no jurisdiction.”
James said nothing stops police officers from investigating and arresting people who break the law, but added that the city’s policy prevents officers from investigating someone’s immigration status simply because they have a Hispanic name.
“Albuquerque is definitely not a sanctuary city,” James said. “But we are a city that celebrates our diversity. We strongly believe that Richard Berry and the Republican Party are endorsing racial profiling, and as a city government we feel that is absolutely the wrong approach.”
A representative of the Berry campaign responded that the policy Berry advocates would specifically prohibit racial profiling and would include an extra layer of supervision for officers on the street. Berry believes in the integrity and judgment of the officers, the representative added.
As for the term “sanctuary city,” Berry said he doesn’t have a definition, but is simply using it to reference the debate that surrounded the 2007 APD policy change.
At that time, the Republican party erected billboards throughout the city lampooning Mayor Chavez for turning Albuquerque into a “sanctuary city” that welcomes “criminal illegal immigrants.”
An Albuquerque-based immigrant rights leader agrees with James that the term is not applicable.
“We don’t have sanctuary cities in New Mexico,” said Rachel LaZar, executive director of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos.
“Far from providing sanctuary, people are getting deported on a daily basis in Albuquerque,” she continued.
Tens of thousands of immigrants moved through New Mexico in federal detention centers, she said.
APD’s policy regarding questioning people about their immigration status is better thought of as an anti-discrimination policy, LaZar said. And without it, undocumented immigrants are unlikely to report a host of various crimes — like sexual assault or child abuse — for fear of being deported.
“Ask the hundreds of immigrants families that have been separated in Albuquerque if we live in a sanctuary city, and you will hear a resounding, ‘no,’” she said. “There’s nothing that affords sanctuary from Immigration Customs and Enforcement here.”