U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requested unfettered access to a database of every employer and employee in the state last week, but the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions rejected the request the next day.
“It’s no secret why they’re asking for this information,” Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said Thursday. “You saw what happened [Wednesday] in Mississippi.”
ICE agents on Wednesday arrested 680 undocumented immigrants at Mississippi food plants in what a federal prosecutor called “the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history.” Though, more than 300 had been released by Thursday morning.
The request from ICE for “direct access” to the New Mexico workforce database came just days before the Mississippi raids.
Emails obtained by The New Mexican show an investigative assistant with the ICE office in El Paso sought access to the database to help “provide agents with a quick same-day response.”
After the department denied the request, the investigative assistant tried to skirt the decision and reached out to other staff members for the information, according to emails, but the effort failed.
“If there is a specific investigation where the information that we have can be useful in a targeted manner, we can work with law enforcement agencies to assist in that investigation — and we’re not going to stop doing that,” McCamley said, adding each request for information from law enforcement is handled on a case-by-case basis.
“But we are not going to allow an organization that is strategically ripping families apart unregulated access to data on pretty much every working person in the state,” he said.
McCamley said the workforce database includes the names, addresses and financial information of all workers and workplaces in the state.
“If you’re working in New Mexico or an employer in New Mexico, you’re in that database,” he said.
Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for ICE, did not return messages seeking comment on the agency’s request for access to the database.
The emails from the ICE investigative assistant, Mui DeMatteo, who also did not return a message seeking comment, said ICE has access to similar records held by the Texas Workforce Commission.
“I have access to the TX workforce commission database but I’ve been receiving more frequent requests for NM by case agents in El Paso,” DeMatteo wrote in an email Friday to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission, said in an email that a limited number of ICE workers, including DeMatteo, have read-only access to a records system, but not the database itself, that allows them to see information “to assist in criminal investigations, and other limited law enforcement purposes.”
“This limited access only includes information related to wage records, unemployment compensation claim benefit data and very limited employer information,” Gamez wrote. “[The Texas Workforce Commission] monitors compliance with the contract to ensure that the data is only used for the agreed limited purposes and that only authorized users are permitted access to the data.”
McCamley said he couldn’t comment on what Texas does or doesn’t do.
“The governor and I feel very strongly that New Mexicans need to be pro-family and pro-community, and that ripping children from their parents is not a good thing for anybody,” he said.
Asked what he would tell people who disagree with his decision to give ICE access, McCamley pointed to images of the aftermath of the Mississippi raids.
“Did you see the pictures of those kids in the paper this morning and on the news this morning wailing that their parents were ripped away from them [Wednesday] in Mississippi? That’s my town in Las Cruces,” said McCamley, a former state representative. “I’ve seen it happen personally.”
McCamley said ICE conducted a “door-to-door raid” in Las Cruces in 2017 when he was serving in the state Legislature.
“I got a Facebook message from a teacher in one of the middle schools in town saying, ‘I’ve got this 12-year-old girl who is sobbing uncontrollably because her father was ripped away at 6 in the morning with no warning,’ ” he said.
“Thousands of kids didn’t go to school [the next day] because they were terrified of what’s was going on, and neither Gov. [Michelle] Lujan Grisham nor I will participate in these efforts to destroy families and communities,” McCamley said.
Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman, said the request from ICE was denied without a “moment’s hesitation.”
“Have we gone numb to families being ripped apart, children abandoned, crying on the street, at school?” he asked. “That’s the government terrorizing communities, and it’s unconscionable, it’s disgraceful. A request for carte blanche, for unfettered access, to New Mexican’s data is extremely, extremely troubling.”
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant advocacy organization, echoed the sentiment. She said New Mexico workers have a “very reasonable expectation” their information will be “safe and confidential.”
“We know that ICE is aggressive and has become increasingly aggressive in its tactics. We just saw what happened in Mississippi in targeting 700 working families and terrorizing those communities and separating those families,” she said.
“Obviously, we should not be open to these kinds of requests and giving these federal agencies access to our databases, and it’s not just [the Department of Workforce Solutions], it’s any of our databases in New Mexico,” Diaz added.
“While state agencies can and should create some safeguards administratively,” she said, “there needs to be stronger, across-the-board privacy protections, not just for immigrants but all New Mexicans.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.