Fort Worth

Sheriff wants jailers to screen for undocumented immigrants

Two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers screen for undocumented immigrants in the Tarrant County Jail, but if Sheriff Bill Waybourn has his way, his own detention officers will soon be doing that job.

Waybourn wants to see 12 of his detention officers trained to look for undocumented immigrants entering the jail. All that’s required is a memorandum of understanding between the Sheriff’s Department and ICE.

“This is going to give us coverage 24 hours, seven days a week so the ability for somebody to slip through the cracks is going to be reduced,” Waybourn said. “I will not foolishly say somebody won’t slip through the cracks at some point in a large, urban jail like this, but this will reduce that.”

The authority to look for undocumented immigrants would only apply to people who enter the jail. Deputies would not question people on the street about immigration status, and the program does not apply to crime victims.

Known as 287(g), the program has its share of critics. It was shut down in Maricopa County, Ariz., in 2009 amid accusations of civil rights violations. The program also drew protests in Houston.

State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, questioned why local law enforcement needs to carry out a job that is the already the responsibility of federal authorities.

“There are unintended consequences that aren’t being realized,” Romero said. “You can have people in there for something as simple as a traffic violation and suddenly they’re getting deported. Who’s going to suffer are their families and their children.”

The contributions of immigrant families in Fort Worth cannot be ignored, Romero said. Immigrants have helped improve areas such as Fort Worth’s Poly neighborhood,where abandoned homes have been repaired and new homes have been built on vacant lots.

Ripe for revival

But with President Donald Trump calling for stepped-up enforcement of undocumented immigration and Gov. Greg Abbott declaring war on sanctuary cities, the program may be ripe for a revival.

Any memorandum of understanding is negotiated between the law enforcement agency and the federal agency, said ICE spokesman Carl Rosnock. Getting ICE approval can take several months and the detention officers then must be trained to use ICE databases and taught how to question those who come into the jail, Waybourn said.

He has said detention officers would screen everyone who enters the jail. Deportation proceedings wouldn’t be started against anyone until an individual’s criminal case was adjudicated. It would ultimately be ICE’s determination whether someone was deported.

“Anybody that comes through that jail, we’ll look at them,” Waybourn said.

The sheriff said he has the authority to enter into an agreement, but he is willing to discuss the matter with commissioners or anyone in the community who has concerns.

“We want to be transparent,” Waybourn said.

He said his position is in line with both Abbott and Trump, who signed an executive order Jan. 25 calling for the deportation of undocumented immigrants convicted of any crime as well as urging deportation of those charged with crimes.

“In stark contrast to the Sheriff of Travis County, Sheriff Waybourn is proactively taking steps to protect the citizens of Tarrant County by enforcing the rule of law and honoring the oath he took to uphold the Constitution,” said John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman. “Tarrant County will be safer because of his actions and the governor applauds him for these efforts.”

Trump has also called for the revival of the controversial 287(g) task-force program, which deputized local law enforcement to help round up illegal immigrants on the street while investigating crimes.

In perhaps the best-known case, the Department of Homeland Security revoked the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s 287(g) task force agreement in Arizona after the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Sheriff Joe Arpaio was involved in widespread racial profiling and civil rights violations, according to the Arizona Republic.

In Texas, Abbott blocked $1.5 million in grants to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez after she said her department wouldn’t uphold warrantless requests from ICE to hold people in her jail who had entered the country illegally.

Thursday in Austin, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 to send a bill to the full Senate that would levy penalties against local governments that don’t follow requests from ICE officers to hand over immigrants in custody for possible deportation.

‘An uneven program’

Currently, 37 entities in 16 states have agreements with ICE, including four in Texas — the Carrollton Police Department, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, southwest of Houston.

In Harris County, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez pledged during his campaign to end the county’s 287(g) agreement. The program had generated protests under previous Sheriff Ron Hickman.

“Review and consideration of the program is one of the sheriff’s top priorities,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said. “We are actively working with ICE to evaluate our partnership and make responsible decisions on best ways to move forward.”

The program had support from Abbott, who urged Hickman to renew the program last year.

In 2015, Harris County booked 120,129 people into the Harris County Jail with 3,486 stopped for possible immigrant violations, according to Houston television station KTRK. A total of 1,831 (52 percent) had holds placed on them by ICE and 167 of those were eventually deported.

In Carrollton, two detention officers are trained to screen for immigrants but police spokeswoman Jolene DeVito referred questions about the number of people held or deported to ICE. DeVito said there are no additional costs with the program.

“The only cost absorbed by the department is the pay and benefits to employ the officer,” DeVito said.

For detention officers to qualify, they must go through a four-week basic training program and a one-week refresher training program every two years at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) ICE Academy (ICEA) in Charleston, S.C., according to the ICE website. The federal agency pays the cost for the training, Waybourn said.

“I think the costs would be minimal,” Waybourn said. “I know the Travis County Sheriff brought up costs and I would counter that with duty. You know we have a duty. The laws of the state of Texas subjugate that we have duty to do this before we talk about what is the cost.”

Muzaffar Chisti, director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University School of Law, has been critical of the program, which once had more than 70 law enforcement agencies participating but now has 37.

“I think what we see on the ground is it is an uneven program,” Chisti said. “There’s a huge variation. Local culture seems to permeate.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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