The rumor that she isn’t tough on criminal immigrants who pass through her jail has grown like a well-fertilized plant, embattled Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez told a panel of state lawmakers on Thursday.
And the head of Texas’ state law enforcement agency told the committee that a fingerprint measure championed by Republican lawmakers has only hindered the department’s efforts to identify possible criminals, including undocumented immigrants.
The remarks came during the first of several between-sessions hearings by the House State Affairs Committee, which is charged with investigating state-based immigration enforcement and local agency cooperation with the federal government.
Valdez has been in Gov. Greg Abbott’s crosshairs since announcing last month that she will honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates, known as ICE detainers, on a case-by-case basis. But she said her comments were taken out of context after a meeting she had with ICE officials and immigrant advocates about how her jail was detaining — and then handing over — immigrants to federal authorities.
“That is a rumor that has grown like a field weed spread with cow manure. It has grown like crazy,” she said. “At one point [ICE] said to us, ‘Sometimes we’ll ask for somebody who you just have on a stop sign violation,’ and I was very uncomfortable with that. And they said, ‘But we have other information behind it for that person.’
“And that is when we said that is a case-by-case situation,” she explained about the confusion, which subsequently led to Abbott threatening to withhold state money from any department that didn’t cooperate with ICE.
Some testimony Thursday mirrored what a Senate panel heard on the same issue last week: Witnesses couldn’t name a Texas county that isn’t turning over criminal immigrants under the guidelines of the federal government’s Priority Enforcement Program that the Department of Homeland Security implemented earlier this year. It instructs immigration agents to focus deportation efforts on convicted criminals or those who “pose a threat to public safety,” according to ICE.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told the committee Thursday that his county has a setup “that works reasonably well.”
“There is an almost full-time ICE agent in our jail daily who scours our roster and determines who might be in the country illegally. If [an illegal immigrant is found], a hold is placed and upon final completion of Tarrant County and state business, ICE will take custody and remove them from the country as they see fit,” he said.
“We don’t want ever to believe ... that the 254 [Texas] sheriffs can just sit back and say this is totally a federal problem. Because if you are elected to protect the people in your county … we need to work with immigration officials.”
However, Anderson said, sheriffs in some smaller counties can’t afford to keep illegal immigrant suspects in jail until their county prosecution is complete and so they release them to ICE, which deports them.
“That is a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said. “A high percentage leave and don’t come back.”
The panel also heard about an unintended consequence of what was thought to be a minor issue that has instead hampered the ability of the Texas Department of Public Safety to identify possible criminals.
Earlier this year lawmakers passed House bill 1888, by state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, which dealt with penalties for driving a commercial vehicle without a license. But, citing privacy concerns, the bill was amended to instruct the agency to delete its current collection of full sets of fingerprints and take only a thumb or forefinger print from applicants for driver’s licenses and other ID cards.
Texas DPS Director Steve McCraw said it has “absolutely” taken from the department a valuable tool to help identify people who may have committed crimes.
“Name-based checks are woefully inadequate,” he testified. “Fingerprints are a great tool in terms of identifying and locking someone into a particular identification. When you come in and put the 10 prints down, there is no question you are that person. You can’t manipulate it, you can’t change it.”
After the hearing committee State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said McCraw’s testimony validated the concerns he had about the proposal during the session.
“I thought at the time that it’s going to be counterproductive for public safety,” he said. “What he told us today was that it’s counter productive for public safety. So people have to balance. They have to decide whether they want more safety or whether they are more concerned about a privacy issue.”
Lawmakers also heard from Terrell County Sheriff W. Clint McDonald, chairman of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition. McDonald spun a different tale than some border Democrats who say the area is more patrolled and safer than ever.
Unlike California, Arizona and New Mexico, Texas doesn’t have government land on the banks of the river, McDonald said. That makes it hard to gain access when private landowners balk at law enforcement on their property.
He’s also said his department is understaffed, and federal agents are fewer in number than ever before.
“We once had in excess of 100 Border Patrol agents stationed [in the area]. We’re down to probably 40 now. And we’re down Border Patrol agents all across the Big Bend Sector right now,” he said. “We see that our border right now is wide open.”
Several times during the hearing, Cook made a reference to House Bill 12 from the 2011 Texas Legislature, the first proposal to ban sanctuary cities that passed out of committee and navigated through the House chamber only to die in the Senate.
Deputy Attorney General Brantley Starr said the bill, if passed today, would likely hold up to a constitutional challenge. Cook said after the fact that the measure could provide a blueprint for lawmakers in 2017.
“You heard from the attorney general’s representative said he thought that was a good piece of legislation,” Cook said. “So it’s not unlikely that that’s a great starting point.”
He also pushed back against attacks by some conservative groups that Cook and other lawmakers, including House Speaker Joe Straus, are soft on immigration.
The sanctuary cities bill “passed out of committee and the House passed it in 2011,” he said. “If they want to choose to ignore that there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Staff writer Monica S. Nagy contributed to this report.