Fort Worth

This immigration issue has divided Tarrant County. Now it’s up for a vote

Editor’s note: County officials voted on this measure June 18. Read more here.

Tarrant County is on the political front line of one of President Donald Trump’s signature immigration enforcement promises.

Officials must decide whether to continue participating in a federal program that lets sheriff’s deputies work as ICE agents.

Supporters say this makes the community safer. Critics say migrants are scared they will be targeted through the program and deported for something as small as a traffic ticket. The county, one of the state’s largest, is home to more than 2 million people, about 16% of them foreign born.

In 2017, newly elected Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn agreed to have 12 deputies trained to act as ICE agents under the federal program known as 287 (g).

Nationwide, the clock expires on these 287 (g) agreements on June 30 and, in Tarrant County, the Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to continue the program..

Eight Republican lawmakers recently signed a letter to the Commissioners Court, urging it to continue the program.

“Tarrant County has reaped the benefits of keeping many violent repeat offenders off the streets,” according to the letter signed by GOP Reps. Tony Tinderholt and Bill Zedler of Arlington, Craig Goldman, Charlie Geren, Matt Krause and Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford.

The program has become a rallying cry for immigrant advocates and organizers who have fought against it with petitions, rallies, marches and open records requests. They argue that the program instills fear and is prone to racial profiling. They also want more transparency about how it works and its costs.

Immigrant communities are complex, say advocates, who explain that families include members with different types of immigrant statuses, from U.S.-born children to parents with green cards to relatives with no status at all. Often, fears of being flagged for deportation outweighs safety.

“The sheriff’s office and other elected offices don’t think the fear in the immigrant community is real,” said Gabriela Rodriguez, an organizer with ICE Out of Tarrant County, who was among dozens of immigrant allies who attended a recent commissioners court meeting speaking against local involvement in the program.

Rodriguez said they will show up again Tuesday for the vote. In the meantime, they hope their efforts will convince three commissioners on the five-seat board to vote with “compassion for the immigrant community.”

In Tarrant County, the undocumented population is estimated to be about 109,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The institute is non-partisan and uses research to develop policy.

A contract with ICE

Tarrant County is the largest of the 25 sheriff’s departments in Texas with agreements to let local deputies take on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tasks.

In early 2017, President Trump began delivering his campaign promises on immigration with a slew of executive orders that focused on policing immigration laws and making all immigrants who lack legal status a priority for enforcement.

One order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” included boosting cooperation between local governments and federal immigration authorities through 287(g) agreements, which date to the 1990s.

On June 6, 2017, Waybourn and County Judge Glen Whitley signed off an a 287 (g) agreement with ICE. The term 287 (g) refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that lets law enforcement agencies such as the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department work with federal immigration officers and “perform immigration law enforcement functions.”

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department is one of 80 law enforcement agencies in 21 states participating in the program, according to a list updated through May from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Waybourn told the Star-Telegram in 2017 that the program allowed the department to tighten up the work that deputies were already doing.

“These are people who came into our country, forgot to sign the guest book,” Waybourn said. “Then, they commit an offense and that’s how they get to us. We are not out there looking for them.”

Whitley said he has struggled with this issue.

He said he knows some people are scared to even go out and drive, fearing they could be pulled over for speeding, given a ticket for a Class C misdemeanor and deported.

Still, he plans to vote for the contract renewal based on data he collected in recent days.

Since Jan. 1 2014, he said, 1,195 people had been placed on immigration holds in Tarrant County, some with multiple immigration holds through the years. And Whitley said he didn’t find anyone with holds for a Class C misdemeanor.

“I’m still looking at the information, (but) right now I support continuing the program,” Whitley said. “If you had asked me a week ago, I probably would have said not.”

He said even though it doesn’t appear that Tarrant County deputies are arresting people for Class C misdemeanors and turning them over to ICE, that doesn’t mean cities across the county and state aren’t doing that.

“The folks that come to our jail are for a Class B misdemeanor and above,” Whitley said, based on his review of the data. “If put on an immigration hold ... the sheriff will call ICE. Sometimes they will pick them up an sometimes they won’t.”

County Commissioner Gary Fickes also said he plans to support continuing the program.

Like Whitley, he’s concerned that there’s a misconception in the community about how the sheriff’s department is handling the program. Deputies, he said, are not arresting people for minor infractions of the law to deport them.

“That’s not what the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department is doing,” Fickes said. “We are strictly working with individuals in the confines of our jail who were probably brought there by the 41 cities that bring people to our jail.”

Commissioner Devan Allen said she has not decided how she will vote, but she has requested more detailed information from the sheriff about how the program has been working and how much it costs the county.

“Those are all valid questions,” she said. She said she has been receiving a steady amount of calls from supporters of the program and from people who don’t want it renewed.

Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks said during the meeting that the presentation didn’t show conclusively that Tarrant County is safer because of 287 (g).

“I don’t see how you can make the blanket statement that the consequence of not doing 287 (g) is a less safe community,” he told the sheriff.

Commissioner J.D. Johnson did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Public comment

On June 11, a large crowd showed up at the Tarrant County Commissioners Court to voice their opinions about the county’s involvement in this program. Some wanted the court to continue the contract while others pushed for an end to it.

People on both sides of the issue crowded into the commissioners court meeting room, so many that some had to move to an overflow room.

Speakers addressed the court after Waybourn spoke, promising that discretion and compassion is used at the county jail and that he supports legal immigration.

The Project Fort Worth tea party group sent an email urging supporters of the program to call the Tarrant County Commissioners office to voice support for continuing the program. The email began: “Attention Sheriff Bill Waybourn needs help.”

“We think it’s a good idea to comply with that provision, that act,” said David Lambertsen, a board member of the group. “I think it’s good for the county, it’s good for the state and we support the sheriff.”

ICE Out of Tarrant County also has urged people to call commissioners, but they are asking them to end the program. This group also is circulating a petition that, as of Thursday afternoon, had more than 100 signatures.

Immigrant allies said the program is another layer in the national anti-immigrant agenda.

“The rhetoric coming from the White House — they make it seem like they can take anybody’s papers away,” said Jessica Ramirez, a member of the steering committee for the group United Fort Worth.

Ramirez said the program is taking place as immigrants face open hostility. At Tuesday’s meeting, she said, an immigrant ally was told by a stranger: “Shame on you. You people are trying to take our country.”

Texas issue

The letter signed by GOP lawmakers notes that immigration holds have kept people with charges of DWIs, assault and sexual assault of a child off the streets.

“In the past, many of these individuals have slipped through the cracks, and due to the diligent work of our sheriff’s department, that is no longer the case,” according to the letter.

“We are a state that has chosen law and order, and we are proud, to date, Tarrant County has made that same choice by implementing policies like the 287(g) program,” it continued.

Meanwhile, a group of Democratic state lawmakers sent a letter to the commissioners opposing the county’s involvement in this program. Democrats Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth and Reps. Nicole Collier and Ramon Romero Jr. of Fort Worth and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie signed this letter.

“We all support safer communities, but there are far better ways to go achieve that goal,” the letter stated. “We need programs that do not unfairly target minority groups and instead strengthen community policing efforts by accurately targeting serious offenders without placing a federal responsibility on the shoulders of our local governments and local taxpayers.

“This can all be achieved without 287(g).”

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, also sent commissioners a letter noting that he signed on as a co-sponsor of a federal bill to end the 287(g) agreements across the country.

He said the program has been “incredibly divisive” and migrants view the program “with apprehension and with fear.” As a result, he said many migrants are afraid to report crimes because they are afraid they could become targets.

“I hope you will seriously decline to renew Tarrant County’s 287(g) agreement,” Veasey wrote in his letter. “I continue to hear from affected families and businesses throughout North Texas that we urgently need immigration reform that would help families already here and allow needed workers to get to their jobs.”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.
Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.