Last year, Tarrant County signed an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help the federal agency detain undocumented immigrants.
Thursday, that partnership was at the center of a forum hosted by the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – and it was also a cause for protest.
Luncheons at the posh Fort Worth Club are usually schmoozey affairs, business leaders and elected officials chatting over white table cloths. Thursday's luncheon, though, had a serious tone focused on recent hard-line immigration policies coming from Austin and Washington.
“I don’t use terms like ‘undocumented citizen,’ or whatever. I use ‘community.’ And we are charged with protecting our community, no matter who is a part of the community, no matter what status they’re in,” said Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald on stage at the event.
Fitzgerald tasked his officers with easing fear among immigrant communities after Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4. The law makes it a crime for local officials not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and authorizes local police to ask about immigration status.
Fort Worth is the only large city in the state not suing to block SB4.
“The law is on the books. It is the law, and we are charged with enforcing the law," Fitzgerald said. "However, the voice of the community has to be heard."
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn said the fears are unfounded.
“Texas peace officers are not out enforcing immigration laws on the street,” he said.
They are, however, enforcing the law in Tarrant County’s jail. Shortly after he was elected in 2016, Waybourn applied for his department to be part of the so-called 287(g) program. That allows his officers in the local jail to help ICE by detaining undocumented immigrants.
Waybourn says they’re focused on people arrested for serious crimes.
“We’re going after the child molester, we’re going after the murder suspect, we’re going after the cartel member, we’re going after, yes, the DWI,” he said.
But protesters from the immigrant rights group United Fort Worth were in the room. And they had a different take.
Waybourn said that he knows “there’s a lot of rumors” about 287(g) and how it “erodes the community,” but regardless, “immigration is a federal responsibility.”
Interrupting the sheriff, the protesters unfurled a banner that said “Sheriff Waybourn Separates Families.” They were escorted out of the room.
Outside the Fort Worth Club, more United Fort Worth protesters said the 287(g) program leaves immigrant communities less safe because people are afraid to come forward to report crimes and seek help.
The group was formed to pressure Fort Worth City Council to join a lawsuit opposing SB4. With this new campaign, they're hoping to dissolve the county's 287(g) agreement.
Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, who co-founded United Fort Worth, explained the program, unlike SB4, is voluntary and Tarrant County and the sheriff chose to be a part of it.
“And now, there’s layers on layers on layers of worry, of mistrust, of miscommunication, and it just puts a burden on the backs of our communities,” he said.
Seventy-five communities across the country are part of 287(g). Garcia Rodriguez said Tarrant County shouldn’t be one of them.