Student's deportation roils New Mexico town

Monday, February 18, 2008

  • Los Angeles Times

ROSWELL, N.M. -- This conservative city on the barren eastern plains of New Mexico long had been spared the acrimonious debates over illegal immigration that have racked so much of the Southwest.

That is, until December, when immigration enforcement entered the murky terrain of the local high school.

A school security officer stopped Karina Acosta, an 18-year-old pregnant Roswell High School senior, and discovered she was in the country illegally. He called federal immigration authorities, who swiftly deported her.

The district superintendent protested and the officer was removed from the school and transferred back to the city Police Department. About three dozen angry students and parents marched on police headquarters -- a notable event in a town not accustomed to controversy -- and were met by a handful of counterdemonstrators who backed the officer.

The schools suffered a sudden drop in attendance as students whose parents were in the country illegally kept them home. The local newspaper was peppered with angry letters to the editor denouncing illegal immigrants. And even two months later, unease permeates the community.

"What shocked me more than anything is what it did to this town," said Coreta Justus, one of Acosta's teachers. In the classroom, she said, "you can feel the difference vibrating from the students. I don't think they have those safety feelings anymore. School used to be a very safe place."

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that illegal immigrants had the right to attend public schools and that educators could not ask students whether they were in the country legally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a policy against entering campuses.

But local police forces like Roswell's are increasingly being pressured to crack down on illegal immigrants.

"You have legislatures that say one thing, a Supreme Court that has ruled something else," said Scott Douglass, Roswell's interim police chief.

"The country's not giving really clear signals."

Douglass defended his officer, saying he was obligated to call immigration officials once he learned that Acosta was in the country illegally.

There have been cases elsewhere of local police arresting illegal immigrants at schools to be deported. Last year in Tucson, police were called to a high school because a ninth-grader was caught with marijuana. When the student's family arrived, they arrested the student, his mother and his brother and handed them over for deportation.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the Albuquerque Police Department in 2005 after officers called the Border Patrol to a local high school. In a settlement last year, police agreed to stop asking residents about their immigration status.

"A school should be a safe haven, and any sort of law enforcement related to immigration status should be very, very limited," said Marisol Perez, an attorney with the Mexican American legal advocacy group. That conflicts with the widely held opinion that police should be free to ask suspects whether they are in the country legally, she noted.

Roswell, the home of the New Mexico Military Institute, is an island of motels, gas stations and modest houses. For decades, illegal immigrants have come here to work in the surrounding dairies and ranches, mixing with Latino families whose ancestors settled here before the land was part of the United States.

In the city, 44% of residents and 60% of students are Latino. Roswell is also home to a number of Border Patrol agents, and the agency has a training facility 40 miles to the south.

Karina Acosta came to Roswell from Mexico in 2004. Her teachers say that at first she felt alienated from other students and wanted to return to her home country, but slowly adjusted. Polite and industrious, she improved immensely in school and started working with her mother in a fast-food restaurant.

On Nov. 27, she was driving her friend Brenda Molina and Molina's brother to school. Stopping in a fire lane outside the neighboring middle school to drop off the brother, she caught the attention of Roswell police Officer Charlie Corn, Roswell High's safety officer.

According to Molina and a written account from Acosta's mother, Bertha, Corn pulled up behind Acosta in the high school parking lot. When Acosta admitted she didn't have a license, Corn asked her whether she was in the country legally. Corn told her to bring proof of legal residency the next day.

Acosta did not see Corn for several days. On Dec. 5, Corn ordered Acosta to his office and called immigration authorities on his cellphone. The immigration officials told him to hold her for deportation, according to Douglass, the police chief.

Acosta's mother said in her statement that she rushed to the school and Corn handed her his cellphone and told her to talk to the immigration official, but she declined.

Bertha Acosta could not be reached for comment; friends say she is terrified. Corn said he had been directed not to comment. Teachers and students complain that Corn frequently asked Latino students to prove they were in the country legally and got one other youth deported several years ago.

Corn's supporters say he has no racial biases and point out that his wife is Latina.

After news of the deportation broke, teachers say, parents refused to let illegal immigrant children go to school.

Some teachers may secretly approve of the deportation but don't realize how it affected students, said one of Acosta's teachers, Dolores Fresquez.

"My kids from Mexico are angry and hurt," Fresquez said. Supporters of the deportation "don't understand how many in this school are here illegally."

One of the counterdemonstrators at police headquarters Dec. 14 was Jack Satterfield, 53, whose youngest daughter goes to Roswell High School and deals with classes crowded by, he believes, illegal immigrants. A retired construction worker, he thinks Corn's action "was great. Our schools are so overpopulated. The majority of the people agreed with it."

City leaders are eager to put the incident behind them.

"This was a first-time occurrence and hopefully a last-time occurrence," City Councilman James Monteith said. "I have no ill thoughts about that man [Corn], and I feel terribly sorry for her."

But mutual distrust lingers. Latino activists say the problem extends beyond Acosta's deportation. Tales are rampant of Latinos pulled over by police for alleged traffic violations and questioned about their immigration status.

Adolfo Reyes, 38, a U.S. citizen, said that happened to him in December. Combined with the deportation, it has made him worry about what could happen to his children if they're stopped by authorities.

"We're concerned they're going to call [immigration] on our kids," Reyes said. "Our kids don't carry their birth certificates or IDs."

Douglass said the Police Department was still trying to determine when it was appropriate to ask residents about their immigration status.

"I've been trying to educate myself and hammer out a policy," Douglass said. The Acosta case has "muddied the spring pretty good, and it's hard to have any clear direction."