Right before the start of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)’s big Albuquerque conference, there came a surprise from a top New Mexico Official. “We are going to establish the first dedicated office focused on protecting the rights of everyone in this country, but particularly the children of this country and that includes Latino children,” said Attorney General Raúl Torrez.
Torrez told the crowd at the conference that he is creating a new Civil Rights Division within his office. “Now, we didn’t get that bill over the finish line but when we had the veto, I made a promise to this community and I’m going to make a promise to my extended community across the country: we’re going to create the civil rights division in the Attorney General’s Office anyway!” Torrez said.
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The original bill, Senate Bill 426, would have created a team of attorneys in the Attorney General’s office focused mostly on protecting children; especially those in state custody. That bill made it to the governor’s desk but was pocket vetoed. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Office said at the time it would muddy the waters for agencies already tasked with child welfare and that no funding was set aside for the division.
“We are re-allocating within the agency, and frankly, it’s a position that I didn’t want to be in. I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to repurpose some of the resources that we had dedicated to other issue areas, but I think it’s so important to start better protecting children and start improving education that we take a more affirmative role and build out this institution,” Torrez said.
Because of the route the Attorney General is taking, Torrez said his prosecutors won’t be able to gather evidence ahead of litigation, but rather only after they make a public filing. “One of the other things that we don’t have that was included in the bill is the ability to gather discovery before litigation. A civil investigative demand. Where we could quietly gather information before we decided whether to initiate a formal action,” Torrez says, “Now, because we don’t have that power, we’re going to end up like all other civil rights plaintiffs—we’re going to file an action which is a big public process and then go through the discovery procedures after that.”
“Those are the two things that we’re missing. We’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to work with the legislature. We’re going to encourage them to bring the bill back up and I’m going to encourage the Governor to reconsider her position,” Torrez said.
Torrez said he’s already hired two attorneys for the division and hopes to hire several more and a division director before the year is up. He added that the new office will also focus on equity in education and jail conditions. “There are a few big areas that are going to be focused on: equity in education, what kind of resources are being expended in education; also, discipline. Unfortunately, we still have school districts in the state of New Mexico that discipline Native students, African American students, Hispanic students at a higher rate, at a rate that is disproportionate to their population in the schools, so we’ll be looking at that,” Torrez said.
“We’ve already received complaints about various conditions in local jails, and so we’ll be opening investigations into the conditions in jails. But first and foremost, and one of the things that I talked about repeatedly is how children are treated when they are referred for possible investigations or their parents are referred for investigations of abuse and neglect,” Torrez said.
Torrez continued: “We all know that the Children, Youth, and Family Department is struggling. They have had some high-profile failures, frankly, in the last several years. I’ve had ongoing conversations with the administration about what our expectations are with respect to how many resources are going to be provided and the work that they do. That’s going to be our, continues to be our number one priority, is the protection of children. And that is the theme for most of the work that we’re doing in the Civil Rights Unit is: what needs to be the role for the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division with respect to children who can’t advocate for themselves?”
The governor’s office had this to say when News 13 reached out for a statement regarding the news:
“We were not aware of the announcement ahead of time, but Governor Lujan Grisham has always supported initiatives that are focused on advancing civil rights for New Mexicans.”
Caroline Sweeney, Public Information Officer for the Office of the Governor