Testimony highlights conflicting reports on support for Wild and Scenic bill for Gila Wilderness

Representatives from two opposing groups in New Mexico testified before the U.S. House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, painting conflicting portraits of support for a bill that would see portions of the Gila River receive federal Wild and Scenic designations. 

The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich presented the legislation at the hearing. The bill is named after M.H. Dutch Salmon, a nature writer and longtime advocate of the Gila River who passed away in 2019. Heinrich said the bill would “permanently protect some of the most dynamic and spectacular rivers and streams in our country.”

“The Gila and San Francisco Rivers are the beating heart of southwest New Mexico and are home to some of the most spectacular places in the west, full stop,” he said. 

Udall said the bill was the result of two years of work by groups in New Mexico, and said the bill was drafted with extensive input from various stakeholders. 

“Sen. Heinrich and I took the unusual step of posting a discussion draft of the legislation early this year, which we revised to reflect community concerns,” Udall said. 

RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river

Udall and Heinrich were joined by Jamie Crockett, the co-owner of Gila Backcountry Services, who also spoke in favor of the bill. 

“This bill is the result of a grassroots movement and nearly a decade of work, from and by the people of my community, to guarantee protections of these rivers, their values, their current uses, and our traditional ways of life,” Crockett said.

Questions on COVID-19 among migrant detainees

When the state Department of Health reported a two-day spike in COVID-19 at Cibola County Correctional Center late last month, activists and lawyers who work with detained migrants didn’t know how many had tested positive. The Milan facility, run by a private company called CoreCivic, also houses federal prisoners under U.S. Marshals Service, as well as county prisoners. “We have one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world,” said Rebekah Entralgo, media advocacy specialist for the California organization Freedom for Immigrants which works with detainees. And she said by phone that the private companies that run detention centers “thrive off secrecy.”

Allegra Love, executive director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants, said her impression is that the migrant population at the Cibola facility is “low.”

“That information is almost impossible to get and CoreCivic isn’t compelled to tell us daily count numbers,” Love said. New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to CoreCivic last week because of the recent spike in COVID-19 at the multi-use detention center.

NM Democrats praise Biden’s choice of Harris for running mate

While presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did not choose New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as his running mate, he followed through on his promise to select a woman as his running mate when he chose California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris on Tuesday. Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother, is the first woman of color as a running mate for a major political party. Democratic politicians in New Mexico, including Lujan Grisham, praised Biden’s choice. “It’s time to rebuild our country better than ever before. It’s time to take back the White House.

Elected officials criticize Trump administration move for more federal agents in ABQ

Albuquerque’s mayor along with the chief of police voiced opposition to a reported plan by the Trump administration to send additional federal law enforcement to Albuquerque and other cities across the nation. CBS News first reported on the memo and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said he was told by the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico that it would be expanded to Albuquerque. Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, “There’s no place for Trump’s secret police in our city.”

“If this was more than a stunt, these politicians would support constitutional crime fighting efforts that work for our community, not turning Albuquerque into a federal police state. We will not sell out our own community, or our own police department, for this obvious political agenda; as they try to incite violence by targeting our city and our residents,” Keller continued. Albuquerque Police Department Chief Mike Geier similarly criticized the proposed use of federal agents.

Poll finds Hispanic families still in need of relief

A recent survey of 480 Hispanics in the state found that close to half have $1,000 or less in savings and nearly a quarter have $100 or less. The survey from Latino Decisions, in partnership with several other nonprofit organizations, found that 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed have $1,000 or less set aside for emergencies and 24 percent have $100 or less in savings. In addition, 48 percent have had their hours or pay cut since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of 45 elected officials, including some from the state’s three largest cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces as well as other cities and counties around the state, signed a letter sent to New Mexico’s congressional leadership Tuesday asking that all residents, regardless of immigration status, be included in the next federal relief bill. Migrants and refugees who lack social security numbers were left out of the federal relief CARES Act in late March.

After a long battle, the Gila River Diversion project comes to an end

After 25 years, $16 million dollars, and missing a key deadline, the Gila River Diversion proposal is now effectively dead. The Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 Thursday against supplying funding needed to complete an environmental impact statement required for the project. Critics of the project, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and conservation and environmental groups, cheered the vote. 

“This proposal is actually the fourth proposal to dam the Gila. We hope this is the fourth and last proposal,” Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, told NM Political Report. 

Siwik boiled down her opposition to the proposal bluntly: “It’s expensive [and] the water is unaffordable.”

The proposal would have seen 14,000 acre-feet of water diverted each year from the Gila River for landowners to use in New Mexico. The state is entitled to that amount of water each year from the river as part of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act.

SCOTUS DACA decision will help 5,800 New Mexico DACA recipients

About 5,800 recipients of legal protections for some young immigrants in the state got surprising, but welcome, news Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against President Donald Trump in his lawsuit against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The 5-4 ruling allows the program under the Department for Homeland Security to continue. Put in place under the Obama administration in 2012, it allows individuals who came to the U.S. as children to gain temporary legal status so they can apply to college and professional jobs. According to a 2019 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service report, 652,880 residents are enrolled in the program. New Mexico was one of the states that sued the federal government.

What ‘qualified immunity’ means for New Mexico

It’s been two and a half weeks since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and protests and demonstrations calling for police accountability have continued to increase. Calls to action include a push to defund police forces, demilitarization of police and a reform of use of force standards. 

Now, many federal lawmakers are introducing and co-sponsoring bills aimed at changing standard practices and in some cases how police are held accountable in civil suits. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich co-sponsored legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, that would change how citizens can sue police for constitutional violations as well as police use of force standards. 

New Mexico has its own history of police reforms and calls for better practices — the Albuquerque Police Department is still in the middle of an attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice, to reform some unconstitutional policing practices. But attempts at holding officers accountable through civil suits in New Mexico often fall flat because of a federal judicial doctrine that ultimately protects officers from being sued: qualified immunity. Heinrich said qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible for plaintiffs to move forward with civil rights claims in federal court. 

“Through the lens of Albuquerque, I think setting the new standard of qualified immunity is a standard of reasonable action,” Heinrich said.

ACLU spending on education in two state senate districts targeted by progressives

Two progressive Democrats, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, who are challenging  incumbents who lean more to the right within the Democratic party, are getting a boost in their campaign efforts. Correa Hemphill is running against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Gabriel Ramos. With her May filing report, she has outraised Ramos by $53.26. Ramos, who was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to replace Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, is running his first election for the seat. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is spending $150,000 in the remaining weeks of the primary to educate voters on the fact that Ramos and state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, also a Democrat, both voted against HB 51 in 2019.

Progressive Democratic challengers want new voices in the state legislature

District Senate 38 Democratic candidate Carrie Hamblen got a boost last week in her bid to defeat incumbent state senate candidate and President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen. That’s because the race narrowed to two candidates – Papen and Hamblen – last week when healthcare professional and entrepreneur Tracy Perry dropped out, citing health reasons. Hamblen, who was the morning radio host for National Public Radio local member station KRWG for 20 years, would have likely split the more left leaning Democratic voters in District 38 with Perry. But Hamblen said the race is now, “more of a challenge for Senator Papen.”

Perry’s name will remain on the ballot. Hamblen is one of seven progressive Democrats running for state senate seats in the upcoming June 2 primary against a group of more conservative-leaning Democrats.