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FRI: New Mexico State University campus sit-in ends in arrests, + More

Supporters of the Palestinian solidarity group’s sit-in at New Mexico State University face police officers outside the Hadley administration building.
Justin Garcia
Las Cruces Bulletin
Supporters of the Palestinian solidarity group’s sit-in at New Mexico State University face police officers outside the Hadley administration building.

New Mexico State University campus sit-in ends in arrests - Justin Garcia And Algernon D'ammassa, The Las Cruces Bulletin via Source New Mexico

Thirteen people were arrested at New Mexico State University’s Las Cruces campus Thursday evening after a group of protesters, angry over the death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, held a sit-in for two hours.

Approximately 12 to 16 people sat close together in the middle of the floor, chanting and singing in the main hallway of the Hadley administration building, which houses the president’s office and other executive and administrative offices. Outside, a group of supporters chanted, some drumming on the entrance doors in solidarity as campus police inside prevented access to the building.

Campus protesters had recently organized a week-long encampment on the main campus and issued a list of demands of the university’s governing board of regents, including a cease-fire resolution, disclosure of the university’s investments and divestment from institutions profiting from Israel’s military response in Gaza or affiliated with the Israeli government.

The regents did not take up a cease-fire resolution and NMSU’s interim president, Mónica Torres, informed the camp via letter on May 5 that the university had not located any investments responsive to their demands. She then requested they break camp, citing university policies and safety concerns. The camp, which consisted of more than a dozen tents on a patch of grass east of the Corbett Center student union building, cleared the area on Monday morning, May 6.

On the “Las Cruces for Palestine” Instagram account, the group responded to Torres’ letter, writing that the administration’s response was a “blatant circumvention of the needs of Palestinians and the demands of New Mexico State University students,” and stated that they would regroup: “The fight is not over, the front has changed.”


An organizer of the group told the Las Cruces Bulletin, outside Thursday’s sit-in, that the action followed a meeting with administration earlier in the day that did not present progress on the group’s demands.

The sit-in proceeded at about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, as finals week neared its end, with Friday the last day of classes. Outside Hadley, students played frisbee on the lawn by the U-shaped driveway leading into campus known as “the Horseshoe.” On a nearby bench, a student posed for a photograph wearing a commencement sash.

By 5:30 p.m., after business hours, Hadley Hall was occupied.

Singing songs and chanting chants, the group was slowly being surrounded by NMSU police, who were, in turn, surrounded by more protesters.

Reporters were not allowed inside the building. Officers, including NMSU PD deputy chief Justin Dunivan, told the Bulletin early during the incident that he might have allowed the media inside.

“We’re working our due diligence to try and de-escalate this situation as much as possible,” Dunivan said. “Obviously, we’re working with the group.”

Outside on the west side of the building, another group of protesters gathered. The group inside, who had broadcast much of what happened on an Instagram live stream, had called for supporters to show up and help the occupation. But those supporters were not allowed inside. The doors were locked and the police stood guard.

So, the group outside banged on the windows and repeatedly chanted “Viva! Viva! Palestina!” The banging was hard enough to shake the windows but not hard enough to cause damage. One protester began chalking slogans on the ground calling for a cease-fire and stating, “NMSU supports genocide.”

A handful of administrators were also inside the building for at least some of the protest. Some watched what was happening elsewhere in the building via the live stream. More protesters arrived, and both the east and west ends of Hadley were crowded with people peering inside, watching their comrades as police exchanged zip-tie handcuffs and discussed their next move.

At 6 p.m., everything changed.

“That building closes for business at 5 p.m.,” NMSU spokesperson Justin Bannister said in a written statement. “Over the course of an hour, the group was repeatedly asked to leave. Shortly before 6 p.m., the group was told that if they did not leave the premises, they would face arrest.”

Word had spread among the crowd outside that police inside, outnumbered by the peaceful protesters inside 2-to-1, was going to start a mass arrest. Then they did, as the protesters outside watched helplessly but not silently: Harder and louder, the protesters banged on the doors and windows, shouting at the police inside: “You don’t keep anyone safe! … You don’t protect the students; you protect the money!” and cursing the officers.

As the protesters inside were cuffed and removed from view, a half dozen Las Cruces Police Department officers arrived along with New Mexico State Police. Two protesters locked arms, pressed against the door and argued with officers who were seeking entry, even as the shouts of others drowned them out.

Finally, more officers filed in and pulled the protesters apart, pressing against one protester’s neck before whipping him around. It’s unclear if the protester was injured here, but the same individual was later taken to the hospital after collapsing. His condition is unknown.

Over the next half hour, police began removing the arrested protesters. Some students walked while others were dragged or carried from the building. Bannister confirmed a total of 13 individuals arrested.

Close to midnight Friday, Doña Ana County Detention Center records had posted booking information for 11 people arrested at NMSU, ranging in age from 19 to 26, booked on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass and resisting or obstructing an officer. One was additionally charged with a felony county of battery on a peace officer. Bannister said some could also face felony charges of criminal damage to property.

“The building was cleared and will be open for business Friday,” he said.

This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.

On day 18, UNM president meets with Gaza Solidarity Encampment - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Eighteen days into the Palestine Solidarity Encampment at the University of New Mexico, the university president for the first time met with students staying at the camp.

UNM President Garnett Stokes visited the camp Thursday after two members of the New Mexico House of Representatives wrote her letters this week joining calls for amnesty for protesters, and one tried to enable a meeting between her and students at the camp.

“Our pressure is working,” the camp wrote on social media. “This is just the beginning. Now the real work of holding her feet to the fire begins. We will not stop. We will not rest.”

Cinnamon Blair, a university spokesperson, said UNM received both letters and is communicating with each lawmaker, but had not yet responded in writing.

“The visit with the protesters at the Duck Pond will hopefully lead to further productive discussions,” Blair said.

The camp on Tuesday quoted at length from a letter by Rep. Eleanor Chavez (D-Albuquerque). Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Albuquerque), wrote the second letter to UNM.

In her letter, Chavez wrote she’s visited the camp four times and reviewed video of police arresting and 16 protesters for allegedly refusing to leave the Student Union Building (SUB).

Chavez asked Stokes to drop the charges, allow arrested students to complete their education, actively support students’ divestment resolution given to the Board of Regents, and “collaborate with the students and the community to stand against the genocide that is taking place in Gaza and push for peace in the region.”

“I am not convinced that those present were engaged in any criminal activity that would constitute a felony,” Chavez wrote. “I am concerned that the police may have used excessive force. I hope UNM will investigate this matter further.”

Chavez did not respond to requests for comment on her letter.


Students who were inside the Student Union Building observed multiple police officers “brutally” take down a student who was not being aggressive “in any way,” said Ayei Sundaram, a licensed clinical social worker.

At students’ request, Sundaram on May 3 organized a mental health pop-up at the camp where around 20 mental health professionals treated students.

“We observed bruising on somebody, and they were talking about their wrists still feeling numb. They don’t feel like their hands are working properly because they were restrained by zip ties, and they were so tight, that that person’s wrists are still painful,” Sundaram said in an interview with Source New Mexico.

The arrests mentally shook the protesters Sundaram treated. Experiences like these can trigger past traumatic memories and make it even harder to cope, Sundaram said.

“If you’re still here at the encampment, and you’re still seeing police monitoring, every time you see an officer, you’re going to feel on edge again,” Sundaram said.

KUNM reports UNM faculty and staff also demanded amnesty for protesters on May 2. Stokes and Provost James Holloway responded by saying some recent protests “have led to productive conversations between university leaders and protesters, allowing the space for us to hear one another.”

“As stewards of UNM, we do not accept that the right to protest includes the right to vandalize, damage property, or illegally occupy community spaces,” Holloway and Stokes wrote. “This violates not only our policies and the law, but also violates our shared responsibility to create and maintain supportive spaces and resources for all of our Lobos.”

Chavez and Roybal Caballero have been very vocal about Palestinian rights, including during the last legislative session, and both have backgrounds in labor organizing.

Roybal Caballero, who has experience in collective bargaining and strike negotiations, said Stokes did not accept her invitation to have a dialogue at the camp on Monday.

Roybal Caballero said she has a disability which prevents her from being in large crowds and limits how far she can walk. So she chose a sunny, calm Monday afternoon to invite Stokes to the camp.

Roybal Caballero said students took her business card to Stokes’ office, and they were told she had another appointment and would respond afterwards.

Within a few minutes, she said, Stokes sent Chief Government Relations Officer Michael Puelle to determine her intentions. They can be seen talking in a video the camp posted on social media.

Roybal Caballero said she waited for Stokes to meet her for three-and-a-half hours, “But she never came out.”

“The President was not available during the time that she was there,” Blair said.

So on Wednesday morning, Roybal Caballero sent a letter to Stokes about what they would have discussed, including her belief that protesters are exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech.

“I fully support demonstrators’ demand for legal and disciplinary amnesty,” Roybal Caballero wrote. “These students should be lauded for their incredible contribution to the community rather than face legal or punitive action.”

As of Thursday, Roybal Caballero and Chavez’s letters are the only ones UNM has received from state lawmakers concerning the SUB arrests and the divestment demands, Blair said.

“I believe in what the students are doing. I believe in a ceasefire,” Roybal Caballero said. “I believe in the United States putting up a bigger fight against Netanyahu’s outrageous abuse of power and his obvious mission, which is to annihilate the Palestinian population.”


The Guardian reports more than 100,000 people have fled Rafah this week after Israel intensified its airstrikes and shelling in the city, where over 1.4 million people have sought refuge.

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury said Wednesday further incursions by Israel into Rafah are “unacceptable.”

“We have urged the use of all tools to end this war,” Stansbury said. “The time for peace is now.”

Last week, New Mexico’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives disagreed on a proposal directly responding to campus protests to establish a broader definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

Stansbury and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández voted against the bill, while Rep. Gabe Vasquez voted in favor, according to the official tally.

Critics have said such a broad definition of antisemitism conflates Judaism with Zionism, in order to expand the terms’ traditional definition to include criticism of Israel and quash expression in support of Palestinian self-determination.

Sundaram, the social worker, said some UNM students since the arrests have been dealing with hypervigilance, feelings of being unsafe, and fear for what effect participating in the camp will have on their futures.

But Sundaram said students are at the camp for a bigger reason: Palestinian liberation.

“These young people are doing what older people have not been willing to, they’re putting their entire futures on the line,” Sundaram said. “They might not have an academic future because of these actions, but they understand that none of us can be free until we’re all free.”

City Council committee listens to budget concerns from residents - Carolyn Carlson, City Desk ABQ

Housing, community safety services, Explora and funding for disc golf topped the list of public comments at a meeting of city leaders to hear city budget concerns.

What’s COW?

The Albuquerque City Council’s Committee of the Whole (COW) met Thursday to hear resident input on the mayor’s proposed $1.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2025.

Three speakers asked the committee to restore $250,000 that was omitted from the Explora Science and Children’s Museum budget proposal.

“As a member of the Explora board, I have seen firsthand how Explora makes Albuquerque a better place. Please restore the $250,000 to maintain current funding,” said John Bell, summing up the comments of the other Explora advocates.

Several people from the Albuquerque Affordable Housing Coalition spoke about continued funding for affordable housing and vouchers.

“Housing is a cornerstone of dignity and opportunity,” said Anita Cordova, past president of the affordable housing coalition.

Other speakers echoed her request for no cuts to affordable housing or the city’s voucher program.

“Obviously, Albuquerque is in the midst of a housing crisis with hard-working families living with housing insecurity,” said Terry Storch.

A couple of people spoke about the importance of funding for Albuquerque Community Safety.This division allows 911 dispatchers to send trained professionals with backgrounds in behavioral and mental health and social services to non-violent and non-medical calls. This relieves police officers of taking some of these types of calls.

“The ACS model has been proven effective,” DeVante Watson said. “The long-term savings will foster a healthier community.”

Another speaker encouraged the committee to fully fund re-entry programs for those being released from prison.

“Re-entry is a huge issue in New Mexico,” Natasha Garcia said. “We need to show them another way of living.”

One speaker thanked the councilors for their support of the popular sport of disc golf in the community.

“I would like to thank the City Council for working with the group and for the recent grant that was approved for a 20-hole disc golf course at Puerto del Sol,” said Marcus Eye, a founding member of Albuquerque Disc Golf. He encouraged the council to follow through with the grant project and for improvements at Ladera Dam and the other disc golf courses.

At COW meetings, all nine council members act as a committee considering the budget and the capital improvement program. The committee also meets with the mayor and department heads to review and make recommendations about the priority, ranking and implementation of policy priorities in the budget. The committee will work out an amended budget proposal at a May 16 meeting and then send it on to the full council for approval on May 20.

Heinrich introduces bill to help teachers afford houses - Rodd Cayton, City Desk ABQ 

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ

Decrying the near-impossibility of homeownership for many educators, two Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation designed to help bring that goal within reach.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich announced the bill Monday during a meeting with educators in Albuquerque. U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

The Educator Down Payment Assistance Act would help with home purchases and keep teachers in the communities where they work, according to a news release.

“Corporations and hedge funds are buying up significant amounts of our rental housing stock, causing rent prices to go through the roof, and creating a severe affordable housing shortage,” Heinrich said in the release. “I’m taking action to crack down on corporate greed and help more working people move out of expensive rental housing and into homeownership.”

Swalwell said there is a shortage of teachers in low-income areas, which stems from low pay for educators, and the grants outlined in the act will help provide some relief.

“Thanking our teachers and incentivizing homeownership are causes we can all get behind and benefit from,” Swalwell said in the release.

If passed, the bill would create a competitive grant program through which public school districts and public charter schools, as well as local governments, could provide up to $25,000 each to teachers, principals, specialized instruction support personnel, librarians or counselors.

The grants would be available to elementary and secondary school educators making up to 120% of the area’s median income; that figure would increase to 180% of the area median income in a high-cost area.

Heinrich’s spokesperson, Luis Soriano, said the legislation empowers the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to define “high-cost areas.”

Based on HUD’s multifamily programs, he said, Santa Fe and parts of Albuquerque are considered high-cost.

“The high-cost area designation would only help teachers in New Mexico, as the 180% AMI threshold is well above the salary of even (veteran) teachers,” Soriano said.

Eligibility would begin after an educator has been on the job for three years. Anyone receiving a grant must serve three years at the same school afterward. Soriano said an educator could take a new position at the same school and keep the grant.

The legislation is endorsed by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Housing Resource Center, and Landed, an advocacy group dedicated to helping educators, healthcare workers and others become homeowners.

Albuquerque Teachers Federation officials Loyola Cortinas and Danni Montoya were among those who met with Heinrich.

Cortinas, the union’s elementary vice president, told the senator that it’s important for schools to recruit educators locally, “so that the community sees themselves represented in our workforce.”

Montoya, a first-grade teacher at Hodgin Elementary School, spoke of her experiences entering the teaching profession.

“I was on food stamps and lived in Section 8 housing growing up,” she told Heinrich. “But when I started teaching, I lost my low-income housing, so my first year of teaching was a struggle for me, trying to manage with three children. Thankfully our union has worked really hard and made great changes, in terms of pushing for the respect educators deserve and getting us raises in pay. We definitely want to retain our current educators and recruit more. And if we can recruit more teachers by giving them this opportunity to help them buy their first home, then that is great.”

On its Facebook page, the ATF acknowledged the bill and said more work is needed.

“As a union, we believe we will not achieve housing justice in Albuquerque until we have repealed the ban on rent control in New Mexico, but we welcome Senator Heinrich’s efforts to help educators and first-time buyers purchase homes,” the federation wrote.

Correa Hemphill to step down from legislature - By Susan Dunlap, New Mexico Political Report

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat from Silver City, won’t seek reelection in the general election in November, leaving SD 28, a swing district, an open race.

Correa Hemphill has represented SD 28, which includes Catron, Grant and Socorro counties, since 2021. She defeated former state Sen. Gabe Ramos, then a Democrat and also of Silver City, in the 2020 primary. Ramos was one of the seven Democrats who sided with Republicans to kill the bill in 2019 that would have repealed the New Mexico 1969 abortion ban on the senate floor. Almost all of those seven Democrats lost in primary elections in 2020. Correa Hemphill was a part of a progressive shift in the legislature that led to the 1969 abortion ban repeal that the state enacted in 2021.

The abortion rights group, Emily’s List, endorsed Correa Hemphill for the upcoming race earlier this spring. Correa Hemphill’s Republican opponent in 2020 lost by 386 votes. Ramos is running to take back the seat in 2024 as a Republican.

Correa Hemphill told NM Political Report that she has not stepped down yet, but that she will do so after the primary election on June 4. Her name will still appear on the primary ballot. She does not face an opponent in the primary race.

The Democratic Party of New Mexico will decide who will replace her to run in the general election in what will then be an open race.

Daniel Garcia, spokesperson for the New Mexico Democratic Party said that a volunteer committee of Democratic Party members within the district will decide who will be the best person to represent the district as a Democrat in the November race.

Correa Hemphill, who was a part of the group of female legislators advocating to professionalize the legislature, said that she is resigning from office because she needs to return to the workforce. She said her husband’s income and benefits are her family’s sole means of support and, currently, their economic future is uncertain.

Correa Hemphill said she is disappointed that she had to make this decision.

“We don’t have the resources in our legislature to really support legislators, which is a problem. It prevents us from having a diverse legislature that can represent a full spectrum of issues,” she said.

Correa Hemphill, who was frequently vocal on reproductive rights issues during her time in the legislature, became a member of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Committees’ Committee. The Senate Finance Committee oversees legislative appropriations and the state budget. The Senate Committees’ Committee decides which committee to send bills for hearings during the legislative sessions.

Correa Hemphill also served, either as a member or advisor, on several interim committees, including as vice chair to the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee.

Correa Hemphill said the lack of pay for legislators is not the only problem. The lack of a staff is, as well. She said having a staff to help with constituent services would also make a difference, especially for legislators representing rural districts where there is a lack of infrastructure.

“Having a staff to help with constituent services would have been really helpful in allowing me to feel like I could serve my constituents in an equitable way,” she said.

She said that the time legislators spend representing their districts is not made up of only the 30 or 60 days the legislature meets every year. There are also interim committee hearings throughout the year, funding requests in addition to constituent services, and the travel time required to drive to Santa Fe.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for the community, for the state and certainly for our family to be put in a position where I have to withdraw due to financial concerns,” she said.

Correa Hemphill, who is a school psychologist, said that her signature issue was disability rights because one of her sons was born with a rare genetic disorder and is disabled.

“I’ve always been a strong supporter for the disability community, advocating for resources for those most vulnerable within our state,” she said.

International District has become an urban ‘pharmacy desert’ - By Damon Scott,City Desk ABQ

Not that long ago there were three large commercial pharmacies located within the boundaries of Albuquerque’s International District — Walmart, CVS and Walgreens — including a small independent one, Phil’s Pills. Today, only Phil’s Pills remains. The effect for residents seeking to fill prescriptions has become a problem with potentially dire consequences.

“For some folks, it’s actually life-threatening if you can’t get your insulin or your blood pressure meds,” said Janus Herrera, a health promotion specialist at Albuquerque’s Health Equity Council who has studied the issue.

The low-income International District is now considered an urban “pharmacy desert,” with more than 25,000 residents unable to access a pharmacy within a reasonable walking distance.

While the term “food desert” has been in the public consciousness for decades — areas where it is difficult or impossible to buy quality fresh food — the pharmacy desert is a newer phenomenon. Analysts say it emerged between 2009 and 2015 when one in eight U.S. pharmacies closed — mostly independent pharmacies in low-income areas with underserved populations like the International District.

The recent closures of Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens have left some residents scrambling. While the reasons for the closures were never fully disclosed by company officials, there’s speculation that profit loss from shoplifting and a perceived lack of police presence were contributors.

“We now have this massive pharmacy desert,” Herrera said.

The city defines the International District as bounded by the boulevards of Lomas to the north, Gibson to the south, Wyoming to the east and San Mateo to the west.

Herrera said her analysis shows that older adults are the most affected, along with those with disabilities, or those who are precariously housed or experiencing homelessness. She said some residents don’t own vehicles (or aren’t able to drive) and can’t afford ride-sharing services. In addition, home delivery is often not an option for those without a stable mailing address.

“The International District has the largest concentration of transit-dependent residents in the state,” Herrera said, including high densities of residents in a low socioeconomic status, particularly east of Louisiana Boulevard. “It’s the largest and most vulnerable population.”

Herrera gave public comment on the International District’s lack of pharmacies at the May 6 Albuquerque City Council meeting and handed out a one-sheet policy paper on the issue to city councilors.

The Health Equity Council issues quarterly policy recommendations to city and Bernalillo County leaders. It is funded by the county and is a partner with the city of Albuquerque’s Health, Housing & Homelessness Department.


Herrera stressed that the effects of living in a pharmacy desert can be severe.

Limited access to prescriptions means people end up skipping doses or taking a lower dose, and that can cause long-lasting health issues, increased hospitalization rates and death. Additionally, treatment costs become higher on average.

Herrera said she’s talked to older adults who are impacted because they are no longer able to drive.

“They said they used to walk to Walmart because that was their pharmacy,” she said. “Then they had to walk a couple more blocks to Walgreens, but it closed. I’ve talked to individuals who have delayed getting prescriptions because they keep getting shuffled from place to place.”

Walmart closed in March 2023 followed by Walgreens just months later. CVS announced that it was closing its International District location in 2019.

Former NM House Speaker Egolf’s juice company case avoids court - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

A state judge ordered yesterday that a civil suit against former New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf and his wife, Kelley, regarding her juice business will be resolved through arbitration rather than going to court.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the judge approved a motion by Egolf’s lawyer in a case between the couple and several investors in the now-defunct juice business, New Mexico Fresh Foods.

The plaintiff’s, including partners in the venture, argue the Egolfs planned to sell the business’s assets to a company as part of a foreclosure in order to defraud them out of over $3 million in investments. Brian Egolf owns majority shares of the company, Invictus.

The investors call the foreclosure sale a “sham.” Attorneys for the Egolfs argue the couple sold assets from the defunct company to Invictus to save Kelly Egolf’s juice brand as the company went under.

The move to arbitration halts any subpoenas for evidence filed by the plaintiffs.

Council moves Westside mixed-use development forward - Rodd Cayton,City Desk ABQ

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ

Albuquerque city councilors rejected an appeal from neighborhood groups opposed to a Westside development, paving the way for the mixed-use project to move forward.

Tierra West LLC is planning townhouses, office space, a cannabis retailer and a restaurant at Coors Boulevard and 7 Bar Loop Road.

Representatives of the Bosque del Acres Neighborhood Association have opposed the project, citing concerns about cannabis being sold in the area and the proximity of a protected archaeological site.


Last May, Tierra West officials met with city planning and transportation staff before submitting the application for the project. The developer agreed to meet with Bosque del Acres representatives. At the recommendation of staff, Tierra West also reached out to the West Side Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, according to city records.

Bosque del Acres resident Sharon Decatur told KRQE earlier that the development would disrupt the area’s rural lifestyle.

Deborah Haycraft, who also lives in Bosque del Acres, told the station she was concerned about her privacy, with only an irrigation ditch separating some two-story townhouses from her backyard.

City records state an officer and multiple members of the Bosque del Acres Association and at least one coalition officer attended the city-facilitated meeting.


The Environmental Planning Commission heard Tierra West’s case in December. It was heard in two parts — zoning changes along with new land uses in one and dimensional variances, which relate to space between elements and the property in the other.

The commission then voted to approve the package, triggering the Bosque del Acres Neighborhood Association to file an appeal challenging the variances and the permit for the cannabis site.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, there was no public comment on the matter and councilors spoke little of it, with Louie Sanchez asking about the elevation difference between the development site and surrounding homes.

City staff told Sanchez that the project would leave residents with ample views of the Sandia Mountains.

The council’s decision means the project can now move forward.

Biden administration will seek partial end to special court oversight of child migrants - By Elliot Spagat, Associated Press

The Biden administration will seek to partially end the 27-year-old court supervision of how the federal government cares for child migrants traveling alone, shortly after producing its own list of safeguards against mistreatment, an attorney involved in the case says.

The Justice Department has told opposing attorneys it will ask a federal judge on Friday to terminate the so-called Flores agreement at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which takes custody of unaccompanied children within 72 hours of arrest by the Border Patrol, according to Leecia Welch, deputy litigation director at Children's Rights, which represents children in the case.

The landmark settlement — named for a child immigrant from El Salvador, Jenny Flores — would remain in effect at the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, creating what Welch called a "piecemeal" dismantling. Attorneys for unaccompanied children will oppose the move, which would be subject to approval by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles.

The Justice Department declined to comment. Health and Human Services had no immediate comment.

Flores is a policy cornerstone, forcing children to be quickly released to family in the U.S. and setting standards at licensed shelters, including for food, drinking water, adult supervision, emergency medical services, toilets, sinks, temperature control and ventilation. It grew out of widespread allegations of mistreatment in the 1980s.

The move has the potential to strain President Joe Biden's already rocky relationship with immigration advocates as the Democratic leader confronts an unprecedented surge in border crossings in an election year. Border arrests have topped 2 million in each of the last two budget years, including nearly 300,000 unaccompanied children.

Biden has tacked toward heavier enforcement as Republicans attack his handling of the border. His administration plans another rule aimed at denying more asylum claims during initial screenings, a potential prelude to actions for a broader border crackdown.

The bid to partially undo Flores would come less than three weeks after Health and Human Services published a rule establishing safeguards for child custody. Secretary Xavier Becerra said the rule, effective July 1, will set "clear standards for the care and treatment of unaccompanied (migrant) children."

Welch said ending special oversight can prevent attorneys for children from inspecting Health and Human Services shelters and interviewing children in the department's care.

"My only guess for why they would want to do this now is because Flores counsel is a thorn in their side," Welch said. "We can go into (their) facilities whenever we want, we can talk to the young people there, and when they're out of compliance we can file motions to enforce, and they don't like that."

Keeping court oversight for the Homeland Security Department would keep critical parts of Flores intact, including a 20-day limit on the Border Patrol holding unaccompanied children and parents traveling with a child. Border Patrol holding facilities have experienced extreme overcrowding as recently as 2021, and the Biden administration has steadfastly resisted calls to detain children and families beyond 72 hours.

When Flores took effect in 1997, caring for child migrants was within the full domain of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which disbanded six years later with the creation of Homeland Security. Since 2003, Health and Human Services has taken custody of unaccompanied children within 72 hours of arrest. The split became a nightmare in 2018 when the Trump administration separated thousands of children from their parents at the border, and computers for the two departments weren't properly linked to quickly reunite them.

A surge of unaccompanied children at the border in 2014 brought heightened scrutiny of the federal government, and elevated flows continue today. Arrests of children traveling alone at the Mexican border topped 130,000 last year. Health and Human Services releases the vast majority of unaccompanied children to close relatives while immigration judges weigh their futures.

In 2020, an appeals court granted the Trump administration's bid to end Flores for Health and Human Services but blocked its attempt to lift oversight at Homeland Security. The change never took effect.

"It was kind of quiet for a while and then we started hearing rumblings that they were going to forge ahead with their own set of regulations that were going to be bigger and better and consistent with Flores," Welch said.

Health and Human Services released a proposal in October that generated more than 70,000 public comments. It published a final version last month.

The department said last month that the rule "implements and goes beyond" Flores. Among other things, it creates an independent ombudsman's office, establishes minimum standards at temporary overflow shelters, and formalizes advances in screening protocols for releasing children to families and sponsors and for legal services.

Welch said the new rule has "a lot of positives" but doesn't address unlicensed shelters contracted by Health and Human Services, which she considers the most critical piece of Flores. In 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott revoked state licenses of facilities that care for migrant children.