HOUSTON (CN) – The sheriff who runs Texas’ biggest jail has reassigned 10 deputies out of a program that trained them to check inmates’ status against an Immigration and Customs Enforcement database and hold them for possible deportation.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, took office in January. He made no secret of his opposition to the ICE program during his campaign, stating he believes it erodes trust between immigrants and law enforcement, making those in the country illegally less likely to report crimes. He also said it could lead to racial profiling.
Gonzalez told local media Tuesday his department is paying $2 million per month in overtime due to overcrowding in the county jail in Houston, which books an average of 1,400 people a week, coupled with staffing shortages. He said he is reassigning the ICE-trained deputies to help reduce the overtime tab.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 authorized the federal government to partner with state and county law enforcement agencies and train local officers on how to identify suspects whom ICE may want to deport.
“After thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided to opt out of the voluntary 287(g) program. We’ll still be cooperating with local, state and federal authorities as we always have, we just won’t have our manpower resources inside the jail doing that,” Gonzalez told the Houston Chronicle, citing the section of law that pertains to the program.
The announcement comes on the heels of new immigration enforcement directives released on Monday by President Donald Trump’s administration, under which even undocumented immigrants arrested for minor crimes could be deported, a departure from former President Barack Obama’s policy of targeting serious criminals and recent border crossers for removal.
Immigration attorneys say the new policies will make nearly all the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally fair game for deportation.
Though Gonzalez has ended his formal partnership with ICE, he isn’t going to take a stand against Trump’s policies in Houston, Harris County’s seat, which has an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants, the third most among U.S. cities behind New York City and Los Angeles, according to a Feb. 9 report by the Pew Research Center.
Gonzalez told the Chronicle he will hold any inmate at ICE’s request, no matter what crime they have been charged with. All Texas sheriffs are being pressured by state officials to fall in line with the new immigrant crackdown.
Under Texas Senate Bill 4, which is aimed at eliminating so-called “sanctuary cities,” state sheriffs could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, if they don’t comply with ICE detainer requests.
The Texas Senate passed SB4 two weeks ago and it’s now being considered by the Texas House. It is expected to pass because Republicans have a large majority in the Legislature.
Trying to calm the fears of immigrant advocates that SB4 will give local patrol officers leave to question people about their immigration status, SB4’s author, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, stressed during a marathon Feb. 2 Senate hearing that the bill would protect crime witnesses and victims.
“At the end of the day SB 4 has everything to do with the rule of law and has very little to do with immigration,” Perry said during the hearing.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already punished Travis County for Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s refusal to comply with ICE detainer requests or let ICE agents into the county jail in Austin to pick up undocumented immigrants.
Abbott canceled $1.5 million in state grants earmarked for Travis County’s criminal justice programs this year.
Hernandez has publicly stated she will turn over undocumented people arrested on charges of capital murder, first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking to ICE, but that the Department of Homeland Security has proclaimed the 287(g) program gives sheriffs the option of not detaining nonviolent arrestees.
Houston immigration attorney Laura Patricia Fernandez became agitated and nearly lost her breath as she told Courthouse News on the phone earlier this month how she thinks SB4 will impact Texas.
“It’s going to be so detrimental to our cities because it’s going to empower local officials to do the federal job. And it’s going to criminalize and maybe even impeach a Democratic sheriff who doesn’t want to comply,” she said about Sheriff Gonzalez.
Fernandez predicted immigrants will fight back with lawsuits alleging due process violations.
“The executive orders that Trump has issued he’s stating that even a simple arrest, people who haven’t even been convicted, they could be detained and then transferred to ICE,” she said. “So a simple arrest. There’s a violation of civil rights right there, due process, constitutional violations. So yes there are so many serious implications here that are going to be affecting our due process.”