Interpretation and enforcement of immigration laws seemingly change as fast as finicky weather patterns under President Donald Trump and his advisers, mostly a group self-styled “immigration hardliners.”
In some cases, the courts have thwarted the administration’s attempts at unilaterally limiting who can enter the United States. Contrarily, Trump, without evidence, continues to tout progress on “The Wall” along the nation’s southern border and, most recently, deployed US military forces to stop what he sees as an “invasion” of migrants from the south. The uncertainty leads to big, philosophical questions on governance such as: How far does presidential power go when it comes to immigration policy? In New Mexico, the charged debate over immigration has raised a narrower question for the state’s legal community. Should people in the United States illegally—regardless of whether they are eligible to hold jobs—be allowed to practice law here as long as they’ve passed the state bar exam?
Yusef Casanova has sat in a prison cell for 27 months — charged with federal drug and gun offenses after his arrest in a 2016 undercover sting operation in Albuquerque. On Dec. 20, his attorney will drive him to the Four Winds Recovery Center, a drug rehabilitation facility, just outside Farmington. It’s an unusual turn of events: A federal judge ordered the release of Casanova, who is facing decades in federal prison if he’s convicted. Casanova was swept up in an undercover operation that arrested a highly disproportionate percentage of black people.
Former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez will stay in his $118,000 job despite heated demands from Albuquerque police reform activists and others to fire the longtime lawman, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told NMID Friday afternoon. The mayor added that Martinez’s role in a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that spawned allegations of racial profiling never came up as he deliberated whether to hire him for a sensitive city police department job. “I respect their input,” Keller said of critics calling for Martinez’s firing, many of whom campaigned for the progressive Democrat last fall. “If there’s any differentiation between what he’s trying to do and my vision for the city and what I can do, then obviously it’s not gonna last long.”
The controversy over Martinez’s hiring flared over the weekend after the Keller administration announced it last week. The protests had to do with his oversight and participation in a four-month undercover operation by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in southeast Albuquerque in the spring and summer of 2016.
Leonard Waites was surprised. The executive director of the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission had just learned from a reporter that Mayor Tim Keller had hired former U.S. Attorney and defeated congressional candidate Damon Martinez as a senior policy adviser for the Albuquerque Police Department. Waites, who is black and also serves as chairman of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board, was outraged last year by the results of a large-scale federal law enforcement operation. Overseen by Martinez, agents had arrested a grossly disproportionate number of black people for relatively minor crimes in 2016. “I have very, very serious concerns about this,” Waites said Monday of Martinez’s hire, adding that he had heard nothing about it from the Keller administration.
Over the last 18 months NMID has closely examined the ATF sting operation, its design, its impact and the legal wrangling that continues to play out in federal court in more than two dozen stories.
Of the 103 people arrested 28 — 27 percent of the total — were black. That’s compared to the city’s 3 percent black population. Further, black people made up just 5 percent of defendants in gun and drug cases in New Mexico’s federal courts during a 10-year period. Racial profiling allegations and admonitions from federal judges have followed the team that descended on Albuquerque around the nation, NMID found.
Attack ads, political bottle tossing and recriminations have marked this year’s race to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez, who is leaving office due to term limits. The campaign’s increasingly dark tone illustrates the state of play in politics here in New Mexico and across the nation. But under the tribalism lies something else: A set of stark differences in visions held by the two candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, who have both abandoned seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion. During three televised debates, Pearce and Lujan Grisham have hurled broadsides and frontal attacks at one another on a host of issues bedeviling the state — from education to immigration, economic development to marijuana legalization, energy to water conservation. Clashes over how to address New Mexico’s persistently high crime rates, particularly in Albuquerque, have torched some of the race’s oxygen, too.
A new federal court filing indicates the practice of secrecy at New Mexico federal courts expands beyond the improper sealing of documents to improperly closing off court proceedings from the public. Assistant Federal Public Defenders John Robbenhaar and Aric Elsenheimer filed a document last week alleging that an Aug. 3 court hearing was sealed — meaning no one besides parties to the case could enter during the proceeding — without their knowledge. A transcript of the hearing also was sealed without their input, the filing says. On Sept.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years. “There has been a long-standing practice in the District of New Mexico for parties to elect to file a document under seal, without prior approval of the district court,” attorney John Robbenhaar wrote in an emailed response to questions from NMID.
The secret filing means the public cannot view — or scrutinize — the U.S. Attorney’s defense of Yusef Casanova’s arrest, which federal public defender Brian Pori has challenged. Last month Pori argued in a motion that he had enough evidence to prove ATF agents and informants targeted Casanova because he’s black and asked Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker to drop methamphetamine trafficking and illegal firearm possession charges.
In a filing Wednesday afternoon prosecutors noted their reason for responding to Pori’s original motion under seal, writing it “identifies by name a number of uncharged subjects of the (operation) and references the content of other sealed filings.”
But Pori told NMID the government did not need to name people who had been identified for investigation but not arrested. Prosecutors could’ve blacked the names out of the document, but left its defense of Casanova’s arrest for the public to see, he noted.
Yusef Casanova believes he has enough evidence to prove federal law enforcement targeted him because he’s black. Casanova, whose case NMID highlighted in a May 2017 investigation, is asking a federal judge to drop federal drug and gun charges from a controversial monthslong 2016 sting operation in Albuquerque and give him his freedom back. The motion, filed last month in federal court, contends there is evidence that shows agents and informants of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) racially profiled Casanova and other African Americans in the operation. Casanova sold an ounce of meth and a gun to an undercover ATF agent in June 2016; he was arrested weeks later and has been locked up pending trial ever since. His white supplier — who was present when Casanova brokered the drug sale — was never arrested.