Fort Worth

Tarrant County officials extend immigration enforcement program

Tarrant County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a plan to stay in a federal program that lets sheriff’s deputies work as ICE agents.

After more than 2 1/2 hours of public comment, commissioners voted 3-2 for a one-year extension of a contract known as 287(g). This refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows law enforcement agencies to work with federal immigration officers and “perform immigration law enforcement functions.”

“I know that fear exists ... for that, I am very, very sorry,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said before the vote. “I wish Congress would get off the dime and get (an immigration policy) taken care of.”

He and commissioners Gary Fickes and J.D. Johnson voted to extend the contract. Commissioners Roy Charles Brooks and Devan Allen opposed the extension.

“I think we have created a monster that runs amok in our community, generating fear, mistrust and adds no value when it comes to public safety,” Brooks said, adding that the community can’t financially or morally afford the extension.

At one point before commissioners voted, there was a heated outburst in the crowd.

Republican Marie Howard — who was wearing a red football jersey emblazoned with Trump’s name and the number 45 on the back — had just spoken to commissioners, encouraging support for the program, when she stopped and asked what someone said to her.

“Someone over here just called me a b----,” she said.

Deputies escorted out immigrant ally Mindia Whittier after she made an obscene hand gesture.

“I disagreed with what she was saying,” said Whittier, a member of United Fort Worth. “They said they wanted us not to be disruptive so I was making a silent gesture that I didn’t feel was disruptive. The police told me I had to leave.”

Asked if she regretted making the gesture, she said: “No I don’t regret it. ... They interpret my gesture as offensive and I interpret the woman wearing a Trump shirt as offensive.”

After the vote, more than a dozen people stood up, loudly chanting, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop.” They then walked out of the meeting.

President Donald Trump — who on Tuesday said millions of people illegally living in the country will be deported starting next week — pushed for more of these agreements between law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 through an executive order. The order was perceived by Trump supporters as a delivery of his campaign promise to focus on illegal immigration.

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

The clock expires nationwide on this and other 287(g) agreements on June 30, which prompted Tarrant County Commissioners to vote. Communities across the state are voting on whether to extend the agreements as well.

287(g) enforcement

Supporters say the program makes Tarrant County safer. Opponents believe migrants are scared they will be targeted and deported for something as small as a traffic ticket. Tarrant County is home to more than 2 million people, including about 16 percent who are foreign born.

Waybourn told the crowd Tuesday that sheriff’s deputies are not racially profiling or conducting raids for ICE.

“This is something that happens inside the jail,” he said.

State lawmakers on both sides of the issue sent letters to the commissioners court. Republicans urged the continuation of the program; Democrats urged the cancellation of it.

Even though many speakers Tuesday urged commissioners to not let the vote be partisan, many comments fell along party lines. At least one person in the crowd wore a red “Make America Great Again” baseball hat.

Tarrant County Republican Party chairman Darl Easton said he would like to see the county extend the program for three to four years, not just one.

He said people here illegally “first violated our laws coming into the country and then they violated the U.S. laws while they were here. ... I believe this is an adequate program and it’s not racist.”

Former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said many people across the county are afraid of police and law enforcers.

“There’s no doubt in my mind (this program) is racist,” he said. “We feel less safe in our community because of things like this and the things we heard today.”

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, tweeted that he was disappointed in the vote to renew the agreement.

“Especially in light of the President’s threats, we need to stand up for our immigrant communities more than ever,” he wrote.

Immigration holds

Jehovany Julian Gonzalez, 19, told commissioners he was arrested by a local police department and booked into the Tarrant County jail last year on a misdemeanor possession charge. In less than three hours, an ICE hold was placed on him. He ended up in detention.

While in the custody of ICE, he missed a court hearing on the original charge and an arrest warrant was issued for him.

Ultimately, he was able to fight the original charge, and said it was dismissed after he was found not guilty. Now he faces an immigration hearing in 2021.

Whitley said the process appeared to work as it should. Brooks responded, “What it did was criminalize an immigration offense.”

Republican Sara Legvold told commissioners it’s important to follow the rule of law — and she believes Gonzalez likely will ignore his immigration hearing next year.

Burnam spoke up for Gonzalez, saying he doesn’t believe he will skip out on the hearing next year at all.

“He has showed more bravery here than anyone in the room,” Burnam said.

ICE debate

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, the issue fueled debate and discussion on social media.

One area of concern was the cost to local taxpayers.

Last week, Waybourn told the commissioners court that detainees with ICE holds are not staying in the jail past 48 hours, but questions remained among elected officials and the community about who is held, for how long and how much it costs taxpayers.

Waybourn said most of the cost for 287(g) falls on the federal government. It was unclear during the meeting how much the county spends on 287g.

Waybourn, who likened the work to being on a task force, said deputies perform ICE duties while also doing their routine tasks. And he said the deputies’ salaries are paid by the county. However, the federal government pays for travel, boarding, meals and other expenses associated with ICE training.

County officials said during the meeting they expect to be reimbursed about $500,000 from the federal government for their work on the program last year.

Waybourn said that, as of Tuesday, there were 280 inmates in custody with ICE detainers for charges ranging from felony homicides and misdemeanor charges such as interfering with an emergency call.

The program is not new, but it became a piece of the nation’s immigration debate with Trump’s 2016 election. The program has existed for several decades. It has come under fire by immigration allies, who describe it as discriminatory because it opens the door to racial profiling.

The program has been practiced under Republican and Democratic administrations. Through the years, it has been criticized by people in both parties.

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department is one of 80 law enforcement agencies in 21 states participating in this program, and one of 25 sheriff’s departments in Texas, according to a list updated through May from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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

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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.