Seven days after her election as the nation’s first Latina governor, Susana Martinez, who had campaigned tough on immigration, said she would not seek an Arizona-style immigration law.
“No, no, I don’t want that for New Mexico,” she told Spanish-language cable channel Univision at the time.
But on Jan. 31, just four weeks after taking office, Martinez issued an executive order requiring state police officers to check and report the immigration status of “criminal suspects.” Martinez’ order rescinded a previous executive order barring state police from asking about immigration status.
Four days later, several lawmakers protested the action in the state capitol. State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, who characterizes the effort as Martinez’ “first shot across the bow,” at the time called it “inherently un-New Mexican.”
Since then, confusion has reigned, and neither side seems to know whether the order has had any effect. Sgt. Tim Johnson, a public information officer with the state Department of Public Safety, says he’s not sure if it’s being “followed to a T.”
On July 7, State Police Chief Robert Shilling told KUNM public radio that his agency is prohibited from “inquiring into the immigration status of a victim, witness or anyone even trying to report a crime.”
Elsa López, a community organizer for Santa Fe-based immigrant advocacy group Somos un Pueblo Unido, told Shilling on the program that his comments contradicted the order itself.
The order indeed bans state police from checking the immigration status of victims, witnesses or those seeking assistance or reporting a crime, but it also directs them to “inquire into the criminal suspect’s immigration status” and “report relevant information” to federal authorities.
By press time, SFR was unable to pinpoint the number of state arrests that led to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds since the order, but Johnson says he’s willing to bet that the numbers haven’t changed.
According to spokesman Greg Palmore, ICE tracks the number of detainees by region. Last year, for the region including all of New Mexico and part of western Texas, the agency detained more than 6,500 people. As of July 4, ICE has detained just over 4,200 people this year—enough to put it on track to meet or surpass last year’s numbers.
In an email to SFR, Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell says the order “deals with only those arrested for crimes” and maintains that victims and witnesses to crimes are still protected. But “arrest” isn’t in the language of the order.
“If you read the executive order, it says any ‘criminal suspect,’” López tells SFR. “It creates a blurry line. If it really doesn’t mean what [Martinez] wrote, she’s sending the wrong message to officers in the state.”
Maestas, an advocate for immigrant rights, tells SFR that Martinez publicly backtracked on “criminal suspects” after he and others pointed out that anyone could be a criminal suspect if the police deem so.
Immigrants have also misinterpreted the order as applying to all police officers, López says. “We get a lot of calls saying things like, ‘My car is stolen; should I call the police?’” she says.
Many New Mexico cities, including Santa Fe, bar the use of public resources to check immigration status. But when the Santa Fe Police Department works with DPS on issues like human or drug trafficking, state officers can exercise their authority within the city’s boundaries, Mayor David Coss tells SFR. He adds that the tone being set at the state level isn’t helping community policing.
“Our policy is, if you see a crime, report it, and the police won’t report you to ICE,” Coss says. “It’s hard for people to believe that message when they’re unsure.”
Martinez’ efforts on immigration reform will continue during the Legislature’s special redistricting session, which has been proposed for September. She’s vowed to try again to repeal the act allowing driver’s licenses for foreign nationals—an effort that failed during the 2011 session. Maestas says he expects the issue to unfold in a similar way this fall. But immigration advocates say raising the issue only creates more tension.
“The bigger picture is the division that this causes in the community,” María Cristina López, chairwoman of the city’s immigration committee, tells SFR. “It’s very sad to have a Latina governor—the first in the country—coming in and dividing us that way.”