A Fort Worth activist group took aim Thursday at the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office's participation in a voluntary program in which it partners with federal immigration authorities.
About 20 protesters with United Fort Worth gathered downtown in opposition to the sheriff's decision in June 2017 to participate in the program called 287(g). The name refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows state or local law enforcement agencies to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The protesters were at the Fort Worth Club, where Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn was participating in a panel discussion with Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald and Tristeza Ordez-Ramirez, field representative for U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, as part of a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce lecture series. Chamber President John Hernandez said at the beginning of the event that it was important to have these conversations in the community.
The immigration program 287(g) gives designated local officers the power to “perform immigration law enforcement functions, provided that the local law enforcement officers receive appropriate training and function under the supervision of ICE officers.”
"The Tarrant County's Sheriff's Department is not enforcing immigration laws on the street," Waybourn said. "We're going after the child molester, we're going after the murder suspect. We need a comprehensive immigration reform. Until Congress makes an immigration policy that is truly comprehensive, we're going to have division."
To participate in 287(g), officers must complete a four-week training program and a one-week refresher program every two years at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center ICE Academy in South Carolina.
According to ICE, Tarrant County is one of 75 counties or cities in 20 states that participate in this program. Of the 75, 24 are in Texas.
Mindia Whittier, co-founder of United Fort Worth, said that one of the group's concerns is that 287(g) was agreed upon without public input.
"We’re just really disappointed that the county commissioner voted in favor of signing an ICE agreement without having any public discourse about it," Whittier said. "We feel like that alone merits bringing it back to the table for a revote so concerned citizens can hear what the memorandum entails, what the expenses are, and as a community make informed decisions."
Daniel García Rodríguez of United Fort Worth said programs like 287(g) "dehumanize our families."
"This is a lack of leadership from individuals like Sheriff Bill Waybourn and the county commissioners court who did not look for community input," García said.
Another concern is that 287(g) is partially funded by taxpayer dollars. While ICE covers the training program, the state and local governments pay most of the costs necessary for the program to work. This includes travel, housing and per diem for officers during training, along with salaries, overtime, other personnel costs and administrative supplies, according to the American Immigration Council.
Whittier said that protesting 287(g) is a way to hold the sheriff's office accountable to the program.
"The thing about 287(g) is that it creates an environment where law enforcement can basically do things behind closed doors and we need to get validation and proof that they are in fact focusing on serious offenders," she said.
During the chamber event, Waybourn and Fitzgerald both emphasized that the point of the program is to respond to concerns about safety and continue providing the same level of security in Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
"We look at community as just that, the entirety of the community," Fitzgerald said. "We need your help. We want to put the message out there that cooperation with us doesn’t mean deportation for those who have status outside of citizenship."