Disclosure: NMPolitics.net editor and publisher Heath Haussamen, who wrote this article, is dating CAFé executive director Sarah Silva, who led today’s protest. Read about how NMPolitics.net handles articles that involve CAFé and Silva here.
Dozens of people gathered in front of the federal courthouse in Las Cruces on Wednesday afternoon to protest a raid conducted earlier in the day by federal immigration agents. Then protesters gathered in the middle Church Street and marched north, blocking traffic at rush hour.
“What do we want?” an organizer of the protest yelled through a bullhorn, to a response of “Justice!”
“When do we want it?”
“And if we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!”
After speaking with protest leaders and convincing them to move off the busy Main Street/Picacho Avenue intersection into a nearby park, Las Cruces Police Chief Jaime Montoya had kind words for the protesters, who he said were exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
“I think it’s commendable, what they’re doing,” Montoya said. “They’re speaking up for the rights of people who can’t speak for themselves.”
The scope of the immigration raid conducted in Las Cruces earlier Wednesday isn’t clear. What is known is that U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents were knocking on doors early Wednesday looking for immigrants living in the United States without legal status. Some were reportedly arrested, though how many isn’t known.
KVIA-TV in El Paso quoted Lluvia Sanchez, who said agents knocked on her door and asked to see identification for her and her husband. She said agents had a “big white van, and there were like four or five people (inside) when the (agents) left” the trailer park.
“I’m a U.S. citizen. We are all citizens here, but it’s pretty scary because they were wanting to come in our house without any reason at all,” KVIA quoted Sanchez as saying.
The raid in Las Cruces followed similar actions in cities across the nation that began last week, sparking fears of the mass deportations new U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened. ICE continued to insist on Wednesday the arrests were routine and similar to those carried out under former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, though many believe otherwise — and there’s some evidence that ICE is now targeting immigrants without violent criminal convictions who weren’t targeted for deportation in the past.
“ICE regularly conducts targeted enforcement operations during which additional resources and personnel are dedicated to apprehending deportable foreign nationals,” said Leticia Zamarripa, the ICE spokesman in El Paso. “… The focus of these targeted enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis.”
ICE released no details about its operation in Las Cruces.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was among those who wasn’t convinced by Zamarripa’s statement.
“I’m extremely troubled by what we’re hearing in New Mexico and across the country,” Udall said. “I want clearer answers about whether these immigration actions are a result of stepped up enforcements because of President Trump’s immigration order. ICE and the administration need to explain what’s going on, how they are making decisions about what actions to take, and why. This is an example of the serious consequences of the president’s executive order, which categorizes all undocumented immigrants as criminals.”
At the start of Wednesday’s protest outside the courthouse in Las Cruces, Sarah Silva, executive director of the community organizing group N.M. Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé), which led the protest, said agents made arrests at the Los Arboles Mobile Village on the north side of Las Cruces. She said a 31-year-old man who didn’t have a warrant for his arrest was taken by agents.
Leonel Briseño, a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and a former Las Cruces school board member, spoke through tears at the protest. “It hurts,” he said.
“We need to stand up for our brothers and sisters,” Briseño told the group standing in front of the courthouse. “We need to stand up and make sure that this doesn’t happen in our community.”
The Rev. Linda Mervine of First Christian Church in Las Cruces also spoke.
“We have been worried about this day,” Mervine said, “… and we know that the one thing we cannot do is be silent.”
As the protesters moved into the middle of Church Street, people chanted “Not one more!”
Dozens of cars were blocked by the protest. Some motorists blared their horns as they moved at the walking protesters’ pace on the one-way street. Others pulled into parking lots and looked for paths around the event.
The protesters stopped when they reached Picacho Avenue, near City Hall and police and fire stations. Many sat in the middle of the street while others stood on the sidewalk and watched. Three police officers on motorcycles arrived shortly thereafter to direct traffic. They were soon joined by other officers and, eventually, the chief.
Montoya, who has met with CAFé in the past, was smiling as he spoke with Silva, who sat in the middle of the road during the conversation. The chief later told NMPolitics.net his concern was the safety of the protesters and motorists. He and officers asked the protesters to stay off roadways in the future and to notify police in advance of protests so they can help facilitate safety.
One protester was reportedly hit by a black truck that tried to get around the protesters. She was not seriously hurt. Police said they would investigate that incident. Montoya cited it during his plea to not block roadways in the future.
The chief said his agency wasn’t notified by federal authorities about Wednesday’s raid and learned about it from the media. Though the City Council hasn’t declared Las Cruces a sanctuary city, Montoya has said his agency will focus on enforcing local laws and won’t seek out people living in the city in violation of federal immigration law.
As Wednesday’s protest wound down at Albert Johnson Park, where people gathered after moving off the street, Silva praised those who participated.
“We had to respond to people who were being torn from their homes,” she said through a bullhorn. “You let everyone know that they are not alone — because in Las Cruces, no one stands alone.
Montoya said his agency wouldn’t arrest any protesters.
“They cooperated, worked with us,” he said. “Why would I compound the problem?”
Elected officials weigh in
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district includes Las Cruces, issued a statement in support of ICE.
“DHS Secretary Kelly recently stated that ICE is conducting enforcement operations based on public safety threats. ICE has always conducted these types of enforcement operations in accordance with the laws we have,” Pearce said.
He complained that the nation’s immigration system “deteriorated under Obama” and said the United States has “the opportunity under the Trump administration to fix our nation’s broken immigration system” and enforce existing law.
Udall, on the other hand, called the approach he said is being taken by the Trump administration “totally counterproductive.”
“We should be putting maximum law enforcement resources toward getting dangerous criminals out of our communities,” he said. “ICE agents have an important and difficult job, and targeting moms and dads with no prior criminal record takes already thin resources away from crime-fighting, and opens up potential new problems in our schools, social service agencies, and for local law enforcement.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., expressed similar concern. He said he is “closely monitoring the Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities in New Mexico and across the country” and called on ICE to ” release all information regarding the individuals detained and ensure that resources are used to target violent criminals.”
“But the reality is, there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear that many are feeling given the attacks and threats leveled by President Trump during his reckless campaign for the presidency,” Heinrich said. “New Mexicans are understandably worried about the direction he’s trying to take our country.”
“I know the Trump Administration doesn’t give us a lot of hope, but I will keep their feet to the fire and demand transparency and oversight,” Heinrich said. “Those that pander and seek to divide us will have to answer for the broken immigration system their inaction has created.”
And in Santa Fe, where the N.M. Legislature is currently in session, a group of Democratic state lawmakers from southern New Mexico held a news conference to condemn the ICE raid. They sent a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez urging her to lobby to keep ICE away from areas including schools, churches, hospitals and rallies — areas where ICE didn’t enforce immigration law when Obama was president. The memo also asks Martinez to push to add courthouses to the list of areas where ICE won’t enforce immigration law.
The American Civil Liberties Union says two women were arrested at the Bernalillo Metro Courthouse recently by ICE while there for drunken driving hearings. And on Wednesday, the El Paso Times reported that ICE agents arrested an immigrant without legal status “who had just received a protective order alleging that she was a victim of domestic violence.”
“This is not who we are. We cannot stand for it in our state,” the letter states. It was signed by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Reps. Doreen Gallegos, Joanne Ferrary, Bill McCamley, Angelica Rubio and Nathan Small of Las Cruces; Rep. Bill Gomez of La Mesa; and Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez of Silver City.
“We call on you to do the right thing by standing with New Mexico families to demand this of ICE as soon as possible,” the letter to the governor states. “We must show our families, our business, and our communities that New Mexico values are keeping families together and keeping communities safe.”
Watch the videos
Shown here is the moment protesters blocked Church Street in front of the federal courthouse:
Protesters are shown here marching north on Church Street toward Picacho Avenue:
Here, protesters are seen marching along Main Street toward Picacho Avenue as police arrive on scene.
This breaking news article has been updated.