WED: New Mexico To Open Up Vaccine Eligibility, Camp May House Migrant Children, + More

Mar 31, 2021

New Mexico To Open Up Vaccine Eligibility Next WeekAssociated Press

New Mexico will be expanding vaccine eligibility next week to everyone 16 years of age and older, state health officials said Wednesday.

The federal government has directed states to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccination by May 1. State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said New Mexico will be meeting that mark April 5.

While the pace of vaccination has been limited by supply, Collins said federal officials have indicated that states should expect "meaningful increases" in supply over the coming weeks.

New Mexico continues to lead the U.S. in vaccine distribution, with nearly 1.2 million doses administered so far. The latest data from the state indicated that about 27% of residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated while more than 44% have received their first shots.

Even though eligibility is expanding next week, the Health Department said it will continue to prioritize vaccinations for those who were in the first groups, including health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, people 75 and older and those New Mexicans with existing health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Private New Mexico Camp Preps To House Migrant Children - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A private Christian camp in northern New Mexico is looking for volunteers and donations as it prepares for the potential arrival of immigrant children from the U.S.-Mexico border as federal holding facilities become more crowded.

Officials with Glorieta Camps confirmed Wednesday that they're in contract negotiations with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to house and feed potentially 2,400 unaccompanied migrant children.

Josh Nelson with Glorieta Camps was unsure when a contract would be finalized. President Joe Biden is under pressure to address immigration as thousands of children and families have been arriving at the border.

Authorities also reported that two young children were dropped over the border wall Tuesday evening but were unhurt.

Convention centers in San Diego and Dallas and even a camp for oil field workers in West Texas have been converted into a temporary housing as the administration scrambles to find more space. In Arizona, advocacy groups have been busing families and single adults to temporary shelters in Tucson and Phoenix where they can wait until being placed with family members in the U.S. or other sponsors.

The Border Patrol is apprehending more children daily than Health and Human Services is placing with sponsors, leading to a severe backlog. The Border Patrol generally is not supposed to detain children for more than three days, but Health and Human Services lacks space.

For the first time Tuesday, the Biden administration allowed journalists from The Associated Press and a crew from CBS inside its main border detention facility for migrant children in Texas. The tour revealed a severely overcrowded tent structure where more than 4,000 people, including children and families, were crammed into a space intended for 250.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office said Wednesday that it was aware only that the Biden administration was seeking temporary sites for unaccompanied children but didn't have any details or information about where or what facilities were being considered.

Brian Sayler with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told The Associated Press last week that the state was in regular communication with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as federal emergency management and homeland security officials.

"New Mexico is requesting that these federal agencies stand up a coordinated response to address any increase in border activity," he said at the time, adding that the state also has been talking with local emergency managers and nongovernment groups.

Aaron Morales, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico's senior senator, said it was the office's understanding that the Health and Human Services Department doesn't have plans to open a shelter in New Mexico at this time.

Glorieta Camps, operated by a Christian faith-based nonprofit called Glorieta 2.0, sits on a 2,400-acre property that is ordinarily wide open for people to communion with nature. Facilities include more than 100 buildings for sleeping, eating and meeting, but there are questions as to what kind of changes would be needed to ensure security of its no-frills conference halls and bunk-bed dorms.

Camp employees and other groups were calling on the public to help provide supplies and were seeking volunteers to help care for the kids. Social media posts and emails were requesting toiletries, bath towels, water bottles and clothes for 13- to 17-year-old boys.

Authorities Say Smugglers Dropped 2 Children Over US Border WallAssociated Press

Video released Wednesday by federal authorities show two Ecuadoran children being abandoned by smugglers after they were dropped over a 14-foot-high barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The toddler and her 5-year-old sister were unhurt, but officials with the U.S. Border Patrol called the incident appalling.

It comes as the Biden administration struggles with finding space to house the several hundred kids and teenagers who are crossing the border daily. In some cases, parents refused entry into the U.S. have sent their children across the border alone, hoping they eventually will be placed with relatives. As a result, holding facilities are packed, and the administration is scrambling to find more temporary housing options.

Chief Patrol Agent Gloria I. Chavez in the El Paso sector, which includes parts of Texas and New Mexico, said an agent using a remote camera was able to spot a person straddling the barrier. The video shows the person lowering the children one at a time before letting them drop to the ground below. The children stood up as two people fled on the other side of the border.

"We are currently working with our law enforcement partners in Mexico and attempting to identify these ruthless human smugglers so as to hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law," Chavez said in a statement.

Authorities said Santa Teresa border agents were able to find the 3- and 5-year-old sisters after being directed by the camera operator to the remote location in New Mexico, just west of El Paso, Texas. The girls were alert but were taken to a hospital to be checked out and cleared. They currently remain at a Border Patrol temporary holding facility pending placement by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Navajo Nation Has No COVID-19 Deaths For 6th Time In 11 DaysAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 15 new COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the third time in the past four days and sixth time in the last 11 days.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures bring the total number of cases since the pandemic started to 30,095 with the known death toll remaining at 1,247.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The Navajo Nation reservation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal president Jonathan Nez said in a statement that federal medical officials continue to caution against lifting restrictions too soon.

"We know of at least one variant on the Navajo Nation, but this should not discourage us at all," Nez said. "Instead it should serve to motivate us to do better and to keep taking all precautions. The safest place to be is at home here."

New Mexico State To Hold Limited In-Person Graduation EventsLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

New Mexico State University has said it will hold limited in-person commencement events in May in addition to its previously planned virtual ceremony for its spring graduates.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that events will be held at Aggie Memorial Stadium in multiple sessions to comply with social distancing and capacity guidelines. Tickets will be required. Masks will also be required.

The in-person event will be broadcast so people unable to attend can participate in both ceremonies. The virtual celebration on May 15 will take place regardless of in-person plans.

Commencement activities for the university's branch campuses will be determined by each campus.

Democrats Narrow Congressional Nomination To 2 Contenders - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Two state legislators advanced to a runoff for the Democratic nomination to defend an Albuquerque-based congressional seat left open by newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Melanie Stansbury were the top two contenders on Tuesday as members of the Democratic Party central committee narrowed an initial field of eight candidates.

A second vote takes place Wednesday to decide on a nominee to confront Republican state Sen. Mark Moores in a June 1 special congressional election.

Democrats have held the 1st Congressional District seat since 2009. Of 199 central committee votes, Sedillo Lopez receive 74 endorsements and Stansbury got 43.

The seat will not pass to another woman of Native American descent like Haaland after Democratic leaders passed over state Rep. Georgene Louis, a tribal member of Acoma Pueblo.

Stansbury, a two-term legislator, has worked in Washington at the White House budget office and as a Senate committee staffer.

In 2018, Stansbury defeated a seven-term Republican incumbent as a wave of progressive female politicians joined the state House.

Sedillo Lopez is a retired law professor who won reelection to the state Senate last year after her initial appointment by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The district is seen as increasingly progressive. Republicans say they'll seize on an opportunity to win in a possible low-turnout election.

In Bernalillo County, the district's core population base, former President Donald Trump won just 36% of the vote in November. The district also encompasses rural Torrance County and portions of Sandoval and Valencia counties.

New Mexico Advances Bills To Legalize Recreational Marijuana - By Cedar Attanasio and Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Legislators mounted a charge toward legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico, as House lawmakers on Wednesday sent an approved framework for pot sales, business licenses and taxation to the state Senate for consideration.

The House voted 38-32 to approve the Democratic-sponsored bill. Several House Democrats joined Republicans in opposition.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called a special session of the Legislature to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older after time ran out during a regular annual legislative session.

Additional vetting of the House-approved bill and a competing Republican proposal takes place before an unusual committee meeting of the entire Senate, led by Democrats, leaving the door open to rewriting or merging the bills.

"The United States of America is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to this," said Democratic state Rep. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque, who has ushered legalization bills four times to House endorsements without final approval. "This bill begins to repair the harms of prohibition."

Martinez's initiative was stripped of several provisions for economic support to communities ravaged by the criminalization of marijuana and tough policing, but it retains low-cost licenses for small pot producers as a measure of equity. And past drug convictions would not necessarily disqualify people from operating a cannabis business.

A companion bill would automatically erase pot convictions and reconsider sentences for about 100 prisoners. The state Senate passed that expungement bill Wednesday in a 22-14 vote. It is expected to pass the House.

Under that Democrat-sponsored proposal, people serving jail time for marijuana-related offenses would have their cases reviewed by corrections officials within a month of the bill going into effect. State agencies have roughly a year to identify, vet and expunge minor cannabis convictions from legal records and background checks.

A half dozen other states have moving forward with legalization of recreational marijuana in recent months. Legalization was approved by ballot initiative in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey during November elections. This year, legislatures in Virginia and New York have approved broad legalization.

Proponents of legalization in New Mexico hope to attract cannabis tourism from Texas and Oklahoma.

Lujan Grisham has hailed the industry's potential to create jobs and bring a stable new source of revenue.

Proposals would eliminate taxes on medical marijuana and impose an initial excise tax on recreational pot sales of 12% that would rise to 18% over time. That's on top of current gross receipts on sales that range from roughly 5% to 9%.

Possession of up to 2 ounces (57 grams) of marijuana would cease to be a crime, and people would be allowed six plants at home — or up to 12 per household.

People convicted of minor marijuana offenses wouldn't need to hire a lawyer to get a clean slate, under the expungement bill.

"We don't want to put a burden on the individual to file the lawsuit, to pay the filing fee to hire a lawyer to get rid of something from the record that we as a state ... are saying is no longer a crime," said bill sponsor Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.

Her bill also limits the extent to which employers and professional licensing boards could prevent hires because of convictions, including for crimes not related to pot. Employers can still ban marijuana consumption by employees under the reform proposals.

Clashing with Democrats, Republican House lawmakers insisted that legalization would increase youth access to marijuana.

State Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell implored House Democrats to allow communities to turn away marijuana businesses. Local governments cannot ban the industry but would regulate where and when marijuana businesses can operate, under all proposed legislation.

Deliberations touched on lingering concerns about public health and marijuana use.

The regulatory framework bill from state Rep. Javier Martínez would create licensed "cannabis consumption areas" that might double as entertainment venues — and alleviate legal problems for marijuana users in federally subsidized housing or other circumstances where marijuana use is restricted.

Public health groups including the American Heart Association said the consumption areas could undermine hard-fought efforts to ensure clean indoor air by state statute and expose cannabis workers to contaminates in second-hand marijuana smoke or vapor.

"We strongly encourage this body to reconsider and abolish any cannabis consumption areas in the bill," said Mahesh Sita, on behalf of the association.

Providing marijuana to children would remain a felony, and businesses that sell to people under 21 risk license suspension or revocation.

New Mexico legislators in the Republican minority are calling the special session an inappropriate public expense in the midst of the pandemic — and an affront to Christians in the midst of Holy Week celebrations that precede Easter.

Republican Rep. James Strickler of Farmington said Tuesday that "a majority of New Mexicans are not that fired up about recreational marijuana."

GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell has introduced a competing proposal for regulating recreational marijuana that emphasizes low taxes.

New Mexico Weighs Automated Expungement Of Pot Offenses – Cedar Attanasio and Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico would automatically erase pot convictions and reconsider sentences for about 100 prisoners as legislators advance a package of bills to legalizing recreational marijuana.

A Senate panel advanced the expungement bill Tuesday evening toward a Senate floor vote, after hours of discussion and revisions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called a special session of the Legislature to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. Automated expungement and pardon procedures are contingent on legislative approval of a framework for legal sales and taxation of recreational cannabis.

Under New Mexico's Democrat-sponsored proposal, people serving jail time for marijuana-related offenses would have their cases reviewed by corrections officials within a month of the bill going into effect. State agencies have roughly a year to identify, vet and expunge minor cannabis convictions from legal records and background checks.

Neighboring states Colorado and Arizona have legalized recreational marijuana, and proponents of legalization in New Mexico hope to attract cannabis tourism from Texas and Oklahoma.

People convicted of minor marijuana offenses wouldn't need to hire a lawyer to get a clean slate.

Democrats Narrow Congressional Nomination To 2 Contenders – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Two state legislators advanced to a runoff for the Democratic nomination to defend an Albuquerque-based congressional seat left open by newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Melanie Stansbury were the top two contenders on Tuesday as members of the Democratic Party central committee narrowed an initial field of eight candidates.

A second vote takes place Wednesday to decide on a nominee to confront Republican state Sen. Mark Moores in a June 1 special congressional election.

Democrats have held the 1st Congressional District seat since 2009.

Stansbury, a two-term legislator, has worked in Washington at the White House budget office and as a Senate committee staffer.

In 2018, Stansbury defeated a seven-term Republican incumbent as a wave of progressive female politicians joined the state House.

Sedillo Lopez is a retired law professor who won reelection to the state Senate last year after her initial appointment by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The district is seen as increasingly progressive. Republicans say they’ll seize on an opportunity to win in a possible low-turnout election.

Albuquerque Police: 1 Of 2 Missing Teenage Girls Found Safe – Associated Press

One of two teenage girls reported missing last weekend has been found safe, according to Albuquerque police.

They said 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo was located Tuesday, but the search continued for 16-year-old Jaylynn Miller.

The girls were reported missing Saturday and an Amber Alert was issued.

The alert was later changed to a missing endangered juvenile advisory after police interviewed a suspect who said he wasn’t involved in the girls’ disappearance and it was no longer believed the teens had been abducted.

Police didn't immediately disclose where Castillo was located.

According to investigators, the teens were in the Santo Domingo Pueblo area around 7 p.m. Saturday when they asked for a ride.

They were dropped off at an Albuquerque hotel.

Police initially believed that a man kidnapped them, but it’s now believed he was an acquaintance giving them a ride.

New Mexico State Police said the alert was issued at the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

New Mexico Judge Delays Trial Over Jury Pool's Racial Makeup – Associated Press

A New Mexico judge has postponed a jury trial for a man accused of rape after his attorney argued his client’s right to a fair trial was violated because none of the potential jurors selected were Black.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that 25-year-old Maury Elliot is accused of raping two teens and a woman in separate attacks.

Jury selection for one of the cases was scheduled to start Monday. But Judge T. Glenn Ellington halted the trial after a defense lawyer said none of the 77 potential jurors were Black.

Under state law, defendants can challenge the racial makeup of jury pools but are also required to provide data showing the pool does not represent a fair cross section of the community.

Assistant District Attorney Kent Wahlquist argued that the pool's racial makeup represents Santa Fe.

U.S. Census data showing that 2.6% of the state population is Black and 1.2% of Santa Fe County's population is Black. But jury pools are chosen from a more specific category of the population among taxpayers, driver's license holders and registered voters.

New Mexico Organizers Plan For International Balloon Fiesta – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Organizers are planning for this year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and spectators will likely be allowed as ticket sales for the annual fall event are expected to begin in July.

The fiesta's early morning mass ascensions, fireworks shows and launches of special-shaped hot air balloons attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from around the globe and hundreds of balloon pilots and their crews. Last year’s event wasn't held because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said Tuesday that the board of directors is committed to following the state’s public health mandates and will have updates on the status of the event each month. The board also plans to identify health measures for pilots and guests by the time tickets go on sale.

New Mexico has had some of the nation's most restrictive rules in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. Despite criticism, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials have argued that the rules were necessary because of the lack of access to health care in the state and the high numbers of people with existing health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Virus Variant Identified In Britain Found On Navajo Nation – Associated Press

A coronavirus variant first identified in Britain has been found on the Navajo Nation, tribal health officials said Tuesday.

The United Kingdom strain was confirmed in a sample obtained in the western part of the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It has been detected throughout the United States.

Viruses constantly mutate, and coronavirus variants are circulating around the globe.

The person who tested positive for the variant on the Navajo Nation had been fully vaccinated. The person was hospitalized and is recovering, said Jill Jim, the tribe’s health director. Contract tracing determined the variant did not spread beyond that person, she said.

Loretta Christensen, the chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service’s Navajo-area service unit, said Monday that the tribe will start distributing free rapid home test kits in an effort to monitor the trajectory of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Navajo Nation reported 12 new COVID-19 cases and one death. It was the first reported coronavirus-related death in three days. The tribe has reported 30,097 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began and 1,247 known deaths.

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