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County in rural New Mexico extends agreement with ICE for immigrant detention amid criticism

FILE - The Torrance County Detention Facility is seen, Sept. 29, 2022, in Estancia, N.M. A lawsuit on behalf of four migrants accuses U.S. immigration authorities of disregarded indications of unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the immigrant detention center in New Mexico to ensure the facility would remain open, in violation of federal standards. A coalition on advocates for migrant rights on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, announced the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., regarding oversight of the Torrance County Detention Facility. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)
Andres Leighton/AP
FR171260 AP
FILE - The Torrance County Detention Facility is seen, Sept. 29, 2022, in Estancia, N.M. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — County commissioners in rural New Mexico extended authorization for a migrant detention facility Wednesday in cooperation with federal authorities over objections by advocates for immigrant rights who allege inhumane conditions and due process violations at the privately operated Torrance County Detention Facility.

The 3-0 vote by the Torrance County commission clears the way for a four-month extension through September of an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the detention of migrants at the facility.

At a public meeting, advocates renewed criticism that the facility has inadequate living conditions and provides limited access to legal counsel for asylum-seekers who cycle through. Critics of the detention center have urged federal immigration authorities to end their contract with a private detention operator, while unsuccessfully calling on state lawmakers to ban local government contracts for migrant detention.

The ACLU announced Tuesday that it had uncovered documents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that show a 23-year-old Brazilian migrant didn’t receive adequate mental health care prior to his suicide in August 2022 at the Torrance County Detention Facility after being denied asylum. Contacted by email Wednesday, ICE representatives had no immediate response to the allegations by the ACLU.

The ACLU urged federal authorities reconsider its contract the Torrance County facility based on a “mortality review” by ICE's health services corps of circumstances leading up to the death of Kelsey Vial during the migrant's monthslong detention. The document describes Vial's symptoms and treatment for depression while awaiting removal to Brazil and concludes that detention center staff “did not provide Mr. Vial's health care within the safe limits of practice."

County Commissioner Sam Schropp said events described by the ACLU took place nearly two years ago and don't reflect current conditions at the facility that he has witnessed during his own unannounced visits. He described numerous accounts of desperation among migrants related to food, water and health care access within the facility as “hearsay.”

“The accounts which you attribute to the federal government will not be changed by closing of (the Torrance County Detention Facility). Those detainees will be moved to another facility and there will be no one like me appearing,” Schropp said.

The ACLU's Mike Zamore petitioned a top ICE official to conduct a new review of the detention center before extending the contract beyond May.

“While this review continues, ICE should let the contract for Torrance expire,” wrote Zamore, national director of policy and government affairs for the ACLU. “From a good governance perspective, it makes no sense to renew a contract for operations that have repeatedly resulted in dangerous conditions and chronic violation of federal standards.”

The detention center at Estancia can accommodate at least 505 adult male migrants at any time, though actual populations fluctuate.

Torrance County Manager Janice Barela said federal authorities proposed terms of the four-month extension of the services agreement for immigrant detention. County government separately contracts for jail space unrelated to immigration at the detention center, which is the county's largest payer of property taxes.