Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Here’s where the DASO candidates stand on border policing and county politics

LAS CRUCES – County politics and the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office’s role in border policing are two of the most significant issues this year as voters consider who should be the next sheriff.

The race pits the incumbent, Sheriff Kim Stewart of Las Cruces (D) against former US Marshall Captain Byron Hollister of Las Cruces (R). Stewart, who’s held the seat since 2018 and bested a former New Mexico State Police Captain in the Democratic primary, garnered the most votes in the primary last March. Hollister earned the second-highest vote count, setting up a competitive race in November.

But a lot has changed since March.

That big table on the border

Over the summer, dozens of migrants seeking entry into the United States crossed into the US and made national news in the process. In addition, the crossings helped reignite the debate over DASO’s role in policing the border.

“We get invited to the big table,” Stewart told the Sun-News in a recent interview. “We are often involved in very, very high-level discussions with people all the way from (Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro) Mayorkas down.”

Stewart said that the county’s geographic location as a nexus between Texas, Mexico, and the rest of the border makes this possible.

“It’s important that we use the voice appropriately and properly,” Stewart said.

Stewart and Hollister said they do not think deputies should be detaining migrants as a part of Border Patrol operations. That’s the job of their agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they said.

However, Hollister does envision some role for deputies on the border.

“What I want is people out there doing drug busts. I could care less if they’re Mexican citizens, American citizens, we’re looking for the crime,” Hollister said.

Specifically, Hollister said he wants to enter DASO to station deputies in the county’s southern reaches to combat drug smuggling.

“This is a place you should saturate. So, when I talked about having people on the border, it is not to go down there and check people’s IDs,” Hollister said.

A critical piece of that idea includes entering DASO into the Stonegarden Grant.

Stonegarden is shorthand for a Department of Homeland Security grant called the Operation Stonegarden Program. It provides cash to police agencies on the border, who use the money to fund officer overtime. While using Stonegarden overtime money, the deputies would be required to assist in border operations.

In 2019, the Las Cruces City Council ended LCPD’s involvement in the grant. At the time, councilors criticized the grant’s lack of guidance and oversight.

Hollister acknowledged the grant’s vagueness and potential for abuse. To handle this, he said he’d petition the Board of County Commissioners to hire grant overseers to ensure the grant was administered correctly.

Kim Stewart, then a former Doña Ana County employee seeking the Democratic party's nomination for Sheriff, spoke out supporting Commissioner Billy Garrett's resolution to end the cooperation and funding of the Doña Ana County Sheriffs Department and Border Patrol through Operation Stonegarden, during a county commission meeting , Tuesday May 8, 2018.

The building on Motel Blvd

The Board of County Commissioners is just one of the various power centers of the hydra-headed bureaucracy of Doña Ana County.

Sheriffs hold responsibilities that overlap or intersect with other officials, including the county manager and district attorney. For example, despite the sheriff being nominally in charge of DASO, DASO employees are overseen by the county manager’s office.

In recent months, Stewart clashed with the county manager and district attorney. The struggles center around overlapping responsibilities. It’s a phenomenon that occurred before Stewart, a pattern she pointed out in a recent interview.

“It’s a wider problem than me,” Stewart said. “The reality is the rules simply need to be defined clearly.”

In previous interviews, Stewart discussed creating a charter defining the roles.

Hollister said that, if elected, he’d work to build collation within the county government.

“I think as long as you’re having an open line of communication with the commissioners and the county manager, I will not have those problems,” Hollister said.

But that’s easier said than done, according to Stewart. For Stewart, it all comes down to the commissioners.

“That in order to get some of this hammered out, we have to have cooperation from the Board of County Commissioners,” she said.

Justin Garcia is a public safety reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be reached at JE [email protected].

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