Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Sheriff Race in Doña Ana, New Mexico Puts Spotlight on Operation Stonegarden

This article is part of the Political Report’s coverage of criminal justice in the 2018 elections.

Photo illustration of downtown New Orleans
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.

This article is part of the Political Report’s coverage of criminal justice in the 2018 elections.

Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique Vigil lost in June’s Democratic primary. He was weighed down by a series of scandals, but also by controversies regarding his role in federal immigration enforcement. “Deputies working under Vigil assisted the United States Border Patrol with hundreds of apprehensions over the course of three years” despite Vigil’s insistence that his office was playing no immigration role, Kate Bieri reported for KVIA.

The context for this cooperation is Operation Stonegarden, a program through which the federal government provides localities with a grant in exchange for their assistance in border activities. Vigil defended Doña Ana County’s Stonegarden grant as “instrumental in providing the additional funds needed to combat crime,” and the county commission agrees: It voted in September to accept a new $750,000 grant. But the program can involve counties in immigration enforcement. “The idea that you’re going to be watching the border inherently requires local law enforcement who receive these funds to think of themselves as doing immigration work,” Jay Diaz, of the ACLU of Vermont, has said about Operation Stonegarden’s impact.

“The reality is that this kind of money has strings attached,” Johana Bencomo, the director of community organizing at NM CAFé, told me. “It’s about what kind of public servant do you want to be. Do you want to be one that’s attached to money or one that’s serving your community and what your community needs?”

In contrast to Doña Ana County, the supervisors of Pima County, Arizona, ended their participation in Operation Stonegarden in September, terminating a grant of $1.4 million.

The candidates for Doña Ana sheriff are now Kim Stewart, who won the Democratic primary, and former Republican sheriff Todd Garrison. At a candidate forum on Sept. 15, both were asked if they have an ethical issue with the Stonegarden grant. Both answered that they do not. Garrison strongly defended it and its importance for law enforcement; Stewart called immigration assistance an “obligation” that her office would owe federal authorities due to the commission’s decision. “It doesn’t matter what my position is, that’s what it says in the grant, and that’s what we as a community have decided to accept in 2019,” she said.

Nevertheless, Stewart suggests on her website that she may minimize assistance. “If DASO [the sheriff’s office] is receiving grant money from the federal government and there is any clause which can compel DASO to assist ICE or CBP [Customs and Border Protection], we need to carefully avoid situations where DASO renders routine assistance,” she writes. “When we become the immigration police, we shut the door forever on those who need our help.” During his tenure as sheriff, Garrison staked aggressive stances on immigration and border security. He denounced federal immigration reform and criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to establish a national monument as weakening public safety. In 2012, advocates cited complaints that Garrison’s deputies were asking for people’s immigration status during traffic encounters.

Update: Kim Stewart defeated Todd Garrison on Nov. 6.