Tarrant County’s immigration enforcement program hits pause due to short staffing, ICE says
Tarrant County’s controversial agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) still exists but is currently inactive, an ICE representative said Wednesday.
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office signed up for ICE’s 287(g) program in 2017. The agreement allows some specially trained sheriff’s deputies to act as federal immigration officers within the jail, flagging people for potential deportation.
The sheriff’s department has not reported someone to ICE since 2021, Detention and Deportation Officer Paul Ocelnik said at a 287(g) informational meeting Wednesday night.
"Since COVID, the staffing has been tough. They’re short-staffed," Ocelnik said.
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office is in a “staffing crisis," and the jail has more than 200 open detention officer positions, department spokesperson Robbie Hoy wrote in an email.
“Our goal is always to be fully staffed. Once we are fully staffed, we will reevaluate our ability to participate in programs,” Hoy wrote.
Out of the thousands of law enforcement agencies in the U.S., 138 choose to participate in the 287(g) program, which is named after a section of immigration law. That’s down from 146 law enforcement agencies in 2021.
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn and other supporters of the program said it makes sense for local law enforcement and the immigration system to work together to identify people charged with crimes who should not be in the country.
Tarrant County Commissioners Court used to have to reapprove the program. In 2020, commissioners renewed the program indefinitely, so it can only end if ICE or the sheriff’s office decides to terminate the agreement.
"Our job is to help to make sure that those folks don't become recidivists and then do that crime again to somebody else in your community," Ocelnik said.
The agreement has sparked protests in Tarrant County from the beginning. Critics of 287(g) wonder why local law enforcement should do the federal government’s job. The American Civil Liberties Union considers the program an engine for racial profiling that hurts immigrant communities’ trust in police.
About 20 people attended the 287(g) informational meeting in downtown Fort Worth on Wednesday night, held in a basement auditorium in the sheriff’s office. Several people criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to publicize the meeting, and for limiting the meeting to a single hour.
The notice of the meeting was on the county’s website for 30 days, and the building had to close at 6:30 p.m., said Jennifer Gabbert, the sheriff’s chief of staff.
RAICES Fort Worth community organizer Sindy Mata is a longtime critic of the 287(g) program. At the meeting, she called for ICE and the sheriff’s office to make more data about the program publicly available.
“This has been the first steering committee meeting in a really long time,” Mata said. “The failures of actually pushing for the vision that y’all were naming at the beginning of the presentation, which is accountability and transparency around a lot of these issues, is definitely a failure and unacceptable.”
“Well, actually, we hold these meetings once every three years,” Ocelnik said.
“Which is my point exactly,” Mata said.
After the meeting, Ocelnik told KERA that ICE is open to questions, and will consider doing more frequent public meetings about the program.
“We will come out and [do] as much education as folks would want,” he said.
The sheriff’s office is not actively participating in 287(g), but inmates in the county jail are not exempt from immigration enforcement. ICE's Dallas field office still reviews the fingerprints of everyone brought to the Tarrant County Jail and can flag people for immigration violations remotely, Ocelnik said.
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