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THURS: 3 homes and 1 office of local Democratic politicians hit by gunfire, + More

Kira Hoffmann

3 homes, 1 office of Albuquerque politicians hit by gunfire – Associated Press

The homes or offices of four elected officials in the Albuquerque area have been damaged by gunshots in a 30-day span, police said Thursday.

Nobody was injured in the shootings and police are trying to determine if the incidents were related. All four politicians are Democrats.

Evidence has been collected from all of the scenes and federal authorities are helping with the investigation, which Police Chief Harold Medina called a top priority.

According to police, someone shot eight rounds at the southeast Albuquerque home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa on Dec. 4.

Seven days later, police said more than a dozen gunshot impacts were identified on walls at the house of then-Bernalillo Commissioner Debbie O'Malley in Albuquerque's North Valley.

At least eight shots were fired at the exterior of the southwest Albuquerque home of New Mexico Sen. Linda Lopez after midnight Tuesday, according to police.

Authorities also said the office of state Sen. Moe Maestas was struck by gunfire Thursday morning.

"It is traumatizing to have several bullets shot directly through my front door when my family and I were getting ready to celebrate Christmas," Barboa, who has been a county commissioner since January 2021, told Albuquerque TV station KRQE. "No one deserves threatening and dangerous attacks like this."

O'Malley, who left her position as commissioner after serving a maximum of two terms, said in an email that she and her husband were asleep before the gunfire struck the adobe wall surrounding their home.

"To say I am angry about this attack on my home—on my family, is the least of it," O'Malley said in an email. "I remember thinking how grateful I was that my grandchildren were not spending the night, and that those bullets did not go through my house."

Lopez, who has been a state senator since 1997, said three of the bullets shot at her home passed through her 10-year-old daughter's bedroom.

"I am asking the public to provide any information they may have that will assist the police in bringing about the arrest of the perpetrators," Lopez said in a statement.

Details of the damage done to Maestas' office wasn't immediately available Thursday.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller called the shootings disturbing and said they are serious crimes regardless of whether anyone was injured.

New Mexico legislators seek automatic increases to base wage - Associated Press

Democratic legislators want to link New Mexico's statewide minimum wage to an inflation index to provide potentially automatic annual increases.

Draft bills from state Reps. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque and Christine Chandler of Los Alamos were published Wednesday that would provide an automatic adjustment to the state's minimum wage based on the consumer price index published by the U.S. Department of Labor. The proposals may be debated once the Legislature convenes on Jan. 17 for a 60-day session.

Gradual increases to the statewide minimum wage were adopted by lawmakers in 2019 and have run their course with a boost Jan. 1 to $12 per hour.

Chandler's bill would initially raise the minimum wage to $16 an hour in 2024 with automatic annual increases thereafter to offset inflation.

The gap continues to grow between the 20 states following the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and the 30 others requiring more.

The highest state minimum wage in the nation is $15.74 an hour in Washington — more than double the federal rate.

U.S. inflation, an afterthought for decades, resurged with a vengeance in 2022, reaching heights unseen since the early 1980s.

Average wages haven't kept up with prices, and lower-income households, which spend disproportionately more on housing, fuel and food, have been hit hardest. At the same time, businesses large and small are struggling to contain higher costs.

Top prosecutor in busy New Mexico district aims for justice - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A prominent defense attorney who has taken the reins of the district attorney's office in New Mexico's busiest judicial district vowed Wednesday to be relentless in his pursuit of justice as the Albuquerque metro area struggles to stem violent crime.

Sam Bregman was flanked by other state and federal law enforcement officials during his first news conference as Bernalillo County's top prosecutor. He told reporters that like other residents, he's "sick and tired" of the crime problem.

"Some people are scared and it doesn't have to be that way," he said, repeating that his top priority would be to make Albuquerque as safe as it can possibly be.

The new DA was appointed to the post by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to fill the vacancy created by the election of Raúl Torrez as the state's new attorney general. The governor cited Bregman's extensive experience as a litigator and said he will bring fresh perspective to the job.

Bregman has represented clients in some of the most-watched court cases in New Mexico. In 2016, he served as one of the defense attorneys in the trial of two Albuquerque police officers charged with murder. The trial ended with a hung jury. He also has represented people who have accused law enforcement of misconduct, including the family of a 75-year-old woman who was shot and killed by Las Cruces police.

He once served as prosecutor in the Second Judicial District before going into private practice. He said he understands how hard prosecutors work and didn't want to sit on the sidelines any longer.

Bregman said he has no plans to seek election to the office after his two-year appointment is up — and that it will be liberating to make decisions and not have to worry about political considerations or about starting a campaign next year.

"I don't have that problem. I can just focus on getting things done and that's what I'm really looking forward to," he said.

Bregman is taking over at a time when criminal justice and public safety reforms are again expected to be big part of the agenda as lawmakers meet later this month for a 60-day legislative session. Pretrial detention will be among the topics, and the prosecutor said he would advocate for changes.

He said he has "strong feelings" that some defendants should remain in custody pending trial based on the crimes they have been accused of committing, suggesting that in some cases there are no reasonable conditions of release that can guarantee the community's safety.

Bregman was joined by members of the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. attorney's office in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office. The officials vowed to work with the district attorney and across jurisdictions.

Biden toughens border, offers legal path for 30,000 a month - By Colleen Long, Zeke Miller And Elliot Spagat Associated Press

President Joe Biden said Thursday the U.S. would immediately begin turning away Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who cross the border from Mexico illegally, his boldest move yet to confront the arrivals of migrants that have spiraled since he took office two years ago.

The new rules expand on an existing effort to stop Venezuelans attempting to enter the U.S., which began in October and led to a dramatic drop in Venezuelans coming to the southern border. Together, they represent a major change to immigration rules that will stand even if the Supreme Court ends a Trump-era public health law that allows U.S. authorities to turn away asylum-seekers.

"Do not, do not just show up at the border," Biden said as he announced the changes, even as he acknowledged the hardships that lead many families to make the dangerous journey north.

"Stay where you are and apply legally from there," he advised.

Biden made the announcement just days before a planned visit to El Paso, Texas, on Sunday for his first trip to the southern border as president. From there, he will travel on to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.

Homeland Security officials said they would begin denying asylum to those who circumvent legal pathways and do not first ask for asylum in the country they traveled through en route to the U.S.

Instead, the U.S. will accept 30,000 people per month from the four nations for two years and offer the ability to work legally, as long as they come legally, have eligible sponsors and pass vetting and background checks. Border crossings by migrants from those four nations have risen most sharply, with no easy way to quickly return them to their home countries.

"This new process is orderly," Biden said. "It's safe and humane, and it works."

The move, while not unexpected, drew swift criticism from asylum and immigration advocates, who have had a rocky relationship with the president.

"President Biden correctly recognized today that seeking asylum is a legal right and spoke sympathetically about people fleeing persecution," said Jonathan Blazer, the American Civil Liberties Union's director of border strategies. "But the plan he announced further ties his administration to the poisonous anti-immigrant policies of the Trump era instead of restoring fair access to asylum protections."

Even with the health law restrictions in place, the president has seen the numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rise dramatically during his two years in office; there were more than 2.38 million stops during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to clamp down on crossings, reluctant to take hard-line measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.

That's resulted in relentless criticism from Republicans who say the Democratic president is ineffective on border security, and the newly minted Republican House majority has promised congressional investigations on the matter.

The new policy could result in 360,000 people from these four nations lawfully entering the U.S. in a year, a huge number. But far more people from those countries have been attempting to cross into the U.S. on foot, by boat or swimming; migrants from those four countries were stopped 82,286 times in November alone.

Enyer Valbuena, a Venezuelan who was living in Tijuana, Mexico, after crossing the border illegally, said Thursday's announcement came as no surprise but a blow nonetheless.

"This was coming. It's getting more difficult all the time," he said by text message.

Some Venezuelans waiting on Mexico's border with the U.S. have been talking among themselves if Canada is an option, Valbuena said. He had been waiting for the outcome of the pandemic-related asylum ban before trying to enter the U.S. again and is seeking asylum in Mexico, which offers a much better future than Venezuela.

"If it becomes more difficult (to reach the U.S.), the best path is to get papers in Mexico," said Valbuena, who currently works at a Tijuana factory.

Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants each month from the four countries who attempt to walk or swim across the U.S.-Mexico border and are turned back. Normally, these migrants would be returned to their country of origin, but the U.S. can not easily send back people from those four countries for a variety of reasons that include relations with the governments there.

Anyone coming to the U.S. is allowed to claim asylum, regardless of how they crossed the border, and migrants seeking a better life in the U.S. often pay smugglers the equivalent of thousands of dollars to deliver them across the dangerous Darien Gap.

But the requirements for granting asylum are narrow, and only about 30% of applications are granted. That has created a system in which migrants try to cross between ports of entry and are allowed into the U.S. to wait out their cases. But there is a 2 million-case immigration court backlog, so cases often are not heard for years.

The only lasting way to change the system is through Congress, but a bipartisan congressional effort on new immigration laws failed shortly before Republicans took the House majority.

"The actions we're announcing will make things better, but will not fix the border problem completely," Biden said, in pressing lawmakers to act.

Under then-President Donald Trump, the U.S. required asylum seekers to wait across the border in Mexico. But clogs in the immigration system created long delays, leading to fetid, dangerous camps over the border where migrants were forced to wait. That system was ended under Biden, and the migrants who are returned to Mexico under the new rules will not be eligible for asylum.

Biden will also triple the number of refugees accepted to the U.S. from the Western Hemisphere, to 20,000 from Latin America and Caribbean, over the next two years. Refugees and asylum-seekers have to meet the same criteria to be allowed into the country, but they arrive through different means.

Border officials are also creating an online appointment portal to help reduce wait times at U.S. ports of entry for those coming legally. It will allow people to set up an appointment to come and ask to be allowed into the country.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants have been denied a chance to seek asylum 2.5 million times since March 2020 under the Title 42 restrictions, introduced as an emergency health measure by Trump to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But there always has been criticism that the restrictions were used as a pretext by the Republican to seal off the border.

Biden moved to end the Title 42 restrictions, and Republicans sued to keep them. The U.S. Supreme Court has kept the rules in place for now. White House officials say they still believe the restrictions should end, but they maintain they can continue to turn away migrants under immigration law.

The four nationalities that Biden addressed Thursday now make up the majority of those crossing the border illegally. Cubans, who are leaving the island nation in their largest numbers in six decades, were stopped 34,675 times at the U.S. border with Mexico in November, up 21% from October. Nicaraguans, a large reason why El Paso has become the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, were stopped 34,209 times in November, up 65% from October.

But Venezuelans were seen far less at the border after Mexico agreed on Oct. 12 to begin accepting those expelled from the United States. They were stopped 7,931 times, down 64% from October.

Venezuelans have said the changes have been difficult, particularly with finding a sponsor who has the financial resources to demonstrate the ability to support them. And even if they find a sponsor, sometimes they delay their arrival because they don't have the economic resources to pay for the flight to the U.S. For some, the Venezuelan passport that they need has expired, and they cannot afford to pay for the renewal.

Return to office for New Mexico workers delayed until Feb. 2 - Associated Press

The scheduled return to the office for all state workers who have been working remotely has been delayed until next month, according to New Mexico officials.

All exempt employees, managers, supervisors and directors were instructed Friday to report back to the office Tuesday while other employees who have been working remotely will be able to continue to do so until Feb. 2.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Wednesday that the delayed implementation of a return to in-person work comes after the State Personnel Office informed employees last month it was rescinding a telework policy and everyone would have to report back to the office at the first of the year.

The decision has sparked pushback from labor groups that have described the directive as unnecessary and warned it could result in even higher vacancy rates in state government, especially among employees who have to commute, don't have access to childcare or are dealing with other circumstances that would make going back to the office difficult, according to the newspaper.

Official: Driver in crash that killed 2 was above DUI limit - By Ken Ritter Associated Press

A Las Vegas woman had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice Nevada's legal limit when her SUV struck and killed a New Mexico couple crossing a busy street last week near downtown Las Vegas casinos, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Mykael Lanice-Lynn Terrell, 28, was arrested at her apartment shortly after the Dec. 28 crash that killed William Clayton Baxter Jr. and Kristie Eileen Baxter of Hobbs, New Mexico. Police said in an arrest report that Terrell "denied drinking any alcohol or using any marijuana products."

However, a blood sample obtained a short time later showed Terrell's blood-alcohol percent was 0.15%, prosecutor Eric Bauman told The Associated Press. Bauman did not immediately say if Terrell was believed to have used marijuana.

Terrell is free on $100,000 bond. She made a brief appearance Wednesday before a Las Vegas judge who assigned a deputy public defender to her case and warned Terrell not to violate strict terms of release, including a ban on driving and electronic location monitoring.

The public defender, Talia Walkenshaw, did not immediately respond later to a message from the AP.

Terrell faces six felony charges, including two counts of driving under the influence causing death that each carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two to 20 years in state prison. The other charges are reckless driving causing death and failure to stop at the scene of a fatal crash.

She was not asked Wednesday to enter a plea. Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure set her next court date for Jan. 18.

In the police arrest report, an emergency medical technician told investigators he was parked with a police officer in a DUI response van about a block south of the crash scene at 4th and Fremont streets when he saw a red SUV later linked to Terrell driving "at a high rate of speed" up 4th Street, passing a car and nearly hitting another pedestrian moments before the Baxters were struck.

Police said the couple was crossing 4th Street against a "don't walk" signal. The intersection, with a marked walkway beneath traffic signals, is often crowded with people making their way among casinos, stores, kiosks, bars and restaurants beneath a four-block-long lighted video canopy.