Uneasy Sanctuary: Santa Fe policies strong but don’t always stop calls to ICE

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An imprisoned man in the Santa Fe County Jail. Photo credit: Steven Hsieh/Santa Fe Reporter

The Santa Fe Police Department generally prefers to make its own law enforcement decisions. On paper, that means leaving federal immigration authorities in the dark on cases involving people who may be in the country illegally, even as President Donald Trump threatens cities’ funding if they don’t cooperate in fulfilling his campaign promise to cleanse the nation of “criminal illegal aliens.”

But during the past two-plus years, SFPD has tipped off Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at least three times about suspected undocumented immigrants. Details about the cases highlight difficulties in balancing public safety against remaining true to “sanctuary” policies that, in Santa Fe, were born of cooperation and core values but are now bound to experience some turbulence.

For Ronald Ayala-Santos, according to police, a heads-up for the feds took some doing on his part.

Since mid-2015, the 20-year-old has admitted to making a false report about “heavily armed men” swarming a Santa Fe neighborhood and phoning in bogus bomb threats that led to the chaotic clearing of the Violet Crown Cinema and the Plaza, police say.
Ayala-Santos was indicted on several misdemeanors and a fourth-degree felony charge after police linked him to the Violet Crown incident, court records show. And after the alleged threat on the Plaza in September, he was arrested.

But it wasn’t until he posted bond, was released from the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center and created yet another bomb scare—this time at the Plaza Café Southside—that city police say they decided to tell ICE that Ayala-Santos may be in the country illegally.

“At some point, enough is enough,” SFPD Sgt. Craig Ernst says in an interview, emphasizing what he calls Ayala-Santos’ ongoing, escalating pattern of behavior and the mayhem his threats have caused. “The agency does have a responsibility to safeguard the community.”

Ernst did not know whether ICE has pursued him, and the agency did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

On Jan. 31, prosecutors dropped the case stemming from the incident on the Plaza al-hough the charges could be refiled later.

Ernst says detectives followed SFPD policy by running the decision to notify ICE about Ayala-Santos up the chain of command to a high-ranking officer. Still, the case represents a rare but not unheard of practice for a police department that reports to a mayor who has become a prominent figure in the national “sanctuary city” movement.

Mayor Javier Gonzales has yet to endorse either of two proposals that would tweak the city’s sanctuary policies.

“The mayor would be in support of what passed last night, but he is also interested in seeing what Councilor Harris’ amendments might be before making a final call,” said city spokesman Matt Ross.

The city’s finance committee on Monday passed a proposal, sponsored by councilors Joseph Maestas and Renee Villarreal, that prohibits city employees from disclosing identifying information of anyone who comes into contact with local authorities. Other provisions would improve language access services and develop policies for police to process special visas for crime victims.

Turnout was unusually high for a finance committee hearing, with nearly 200 locals packing council chambers to support the Maestas/Villarreal measure.

Business leaders, legal advocates and local officials, including former mayor David Coss, all spoke in support of the proposal. “I just ask that you work with us and collaborate to ensure all our children and family feel safe in our schools,” said Veronica Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools.

Santa Feans came out in droves, despite recent changes to the resolution intended to put the city on better legal footing should President Trump make good on his threats to yank federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions. Sponsors recently stripped the term “sanctuary” from earlier drafts.

Still, even popular ideas don’t pass without controversy. City Councilor Michael Harris on Friday introduced an alternate sanctuary resolution that is significantly shorter than the proposal offered by Villarreal and Maestas. Harris’ text does not include as many actionable provisions, but does list statistics showing that sanctuary communities have lower crime rates. Another line makes clear Santa Fe’s “commitment to the established rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Santa Fe County has never embraced the “sanctuary” label, though its policies and practices hew closely to jurisdictions that do, such as the city of Santa Fe. For example, the county jail does not honor so-called “ICE detainer requests,” in which the federal agency asks city and county jailers to hold suspected undocumented immigrants beyond when they could otherwise have been released.

“The way I look at it, for liability and litigation purposes, I can only hold someone until a release order comes from a [state] judge,” says Derek Williams, the jail’s new warden. “It’s a potential civil rights violation otherwise.”

In 2012, the county drew a rebuke from ICE for its refusal to cooperate. ICE has backed off since then, according to data gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York. In the federal fiscal year 2012, ICE re-quested 155 immigration detainers from the Santa Fe County jail. In fiscal 2015, that number had plummeted to just 12. Williams, who began his tenure a month ago, did not know how many of the requests had been granted.

Marcela Diaz of the immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido says the communities she represents are not hung up on the “sanctuary” label. Strong policies that protect people regardless of immigration status matter more, she says, and both the city and county have those.

“And what matters more than that is openness and transparency: knowing that when officers or the jail make a mistake—and everyone does—people can trust that complaints are taken seriously and they have a safe place for the redress of grievances,” Diaz tells SFR. “That’s what ‘sanctuary’ really means.”

For years, Somos Un Pueblo Unido and other immigrant groups have worked well with city and county officials, she says. But with a relatively new chief at SFPD (Patrick Gallagher took over the post permanently a year ago), a new warden at the jail and the Trump administration promising federal dollars for cooperation in enforcement, there is work to do to maintain the delicate balance in Santa Fe.

“We’ve had good experiences in the past, and I want to believe that these individuals want what our community wants: a sense of belonging and safety,” Diaz says. “But when I read a quote from the new police chief saying, ‘We’re not going to turn anyone over to ICE unless they’re a criminal,’ well, he just said what Donald Trump said. And we all know that’s bullshit.”

Of course, entering the US without documentation is technically a crime in itself—one Diaz says city and county officials in Santa Fe have largely shielded immigrants from, regardless of status.

Learning about Ayala-Santos’ case from SFR raised some concerns for Diaz, though she declined to comment in detail without reviewing the entire case file. So did the two other cases in which SFPD has, according to Deputy Chief Mario Salbidrez, cooperated with ICE during the past two-plus years: once after burglary suspect Carlos Navarrete-May told officers in December he was connected to a Mexican drug cartel, and another time when an SFPD officer saw Jorge Serrano-Nevarez at the burning of Zozobra in September 2015.

Serrano-Nevarez had been deported after serving federal prison time for property crimes, and the officer called ICE to obtain a warrant for illegal re-entry. The agency issued the warrant, and the officer later arrested him.

The department’s policies prohibit officers from making arrests solely based on a per-son’s immigration status—or from notifying ICE that a criminal suspect is in the country illegally, except in cases involving certain felonies, most of them violent crimes.

That doesn’t mean ICE won’t come looking on its own. In Santa Fe, the federal agency has taken away immigrant residents who lack legal documentation to live here. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has ramped up immigration enforcement in cities across the country, and an executive order signed during the new president’s first week in office seeks to deputize local police and sheriffs to assist that effort while withholding federal funds from cities and counties that don’t.

Diaz says Trump’s carrot-and-stick approach may create difficult decisions for officials who have resisted aiding ICE, particularly in cash-strapped times like those New Mexico cities are facing.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Robert Anaya said he has never favored embracing the “sanctuary” label because it is a designation without a distinction. Further, he points out that the county’s federal funding has come through rigorous request for proposals and grant writing processes.

“It would be ludicrous for the president or anyone else to come in and say you won’t get this funding anymore when we complied with the terms of those processes,” he said. “I would expect there would be all kinds of litigation if they tried to take those dollars back. There would be due process and other issues, but now that you mention it, I guess some of that may be out the window now.”

SFR staff writer Steven Hsieh contributed reporting to this story.

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