Questions Tarrant County must answer to keep deputies in 287(g) immigration program

Don’t think that Tarrant County commissioners’ vote this week to let sheriff’s deputies continue enforcing federal immigration law at the jail settles the issue.

If anything, two meetings and hours of passionate public testimony have revealed more questions about the county’s participation in the so-called 287(g) program that must be addressed. And if Sheriff Bill Waybourn can’t provide more complete information about the costs and scope of the effort, commissioners should withdraw the county from it next year.

There are plenty of misconceptions about the program, and the sheriff and his staff tried to address them. A huge workforce isn’t suddenly devoted to immigration; 10 jailers have been trained, at federal cost, to perform checks. No one’s immigration status is considered until they’ve been arrested on at least a Class B misdemeanor charge. So no, a simple speeding ticket, in and of itself, won’t suddenly lead to deportation.

But information about exactly what charges lead to the involvement of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is spotty. In a county that spends more than $625 million a year, we were treated to the spectacle of the county judge going line-by-line through a massive spreadsheet to determine what county charges those held for immigration purposes faced.

Sheriff’s officials say a lack of good jail management software is the issue. That needs to be fixed; if the county can’t run a simple data query about who has come through the jail, how can it properly set policy?

The same goes for the program’s cost. Waybourn argued that local taxpayers were on the hook for just a few thousand dollars, based on the relatively quick time that it takes a deputy to perform the ICE function and the fact that the federal government reimburses training costs, including travel.

But as critics noted, he left out the salaries paid to those deputies while they’re in training and not performing other county functions. That number won’t be so large as to turn supporters off the program, so why be cute about it?

Transparency on these matters would be a good start. But Waybourn and other county officials have work to do to persuade immigrants that 287(g) doesn’t put a target on them.

There’s a case to be made — most immigrants, even if they came here illegally, stay on the right side of the law and contribute to society. They are unlikely to run afoul of 287(g). And immigrant communities benefit when dangerous criminals are removed.

Waybourn will never win over some critics, but if he wants to continue 287(g) as an effective law enforcement tool, he needs to reach out.

In reality, 287(g) isn’t as big as either its supporters or detractors make it out to be. It’s not removing large numbers of hardened criminals from the streets; nor is it leading to roundups and deportations of law-abiding residents. It’s a proxy fight over the larger question of how to manage immigration.

That means it will continue to be a flashpoint. The year-long extension was granted on a slim 3-2 vote, and County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican, seemed willing to consider whether the program does more harm than good.

When the issue next comes before the Commissioners Court, we’ll be in the throes of an election year. Among those on the ballot will be Sheriff Waybourn, if he chooses to run again. If his office’s handling of 287(g) hasn’t improved, and county commissioners haven’t taken steps to ensure they get the information the public needs, voters should take that into account.