Tarrant County will continue a controversial federal program that taps local sheriff’s deputies to help enforce federal immigration laws.
After more than two hours of public comments on Tuesday that were at times tearful and terse, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved a one-year extension of its agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that trained a dozen sheriff’s deputies to screen for undocumented immigrants booked into the county jail, and flag them for deportation.
County Judge Glen Whitley acknowledged the so-called 287(g) agreement has sown fear among many immigrants in Tarrant County, saying decades of immigration policy stalemate among federal lawmakers has left millions of undocumented immigrants in a precarious condition.
“I know that the fear exists,” Whitley said. “And I wish desperately that Congress would get off the dime and get that taken care of.”
Whitely voted to extend the program alongside his fellow Republicans on the court, Commissioners Gary Fickes of Southlake and J.D. Johnson of Fort Worth.
“This country’s built on laws,” said Ficke. “And as long as our sheriff’s department is looking at the prisoners who have committed a crime in our county against our citizens…then we’re a better community if we’re not here.”
Democratic Commissioners Roy Brooks of Fort Worth and Devan Allen of Arlington voted against the extension, Allen said Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn had failed to provide enough detail or clarity from on the costs of the program or its effect on public safety. Brooks, who apologized for voting to initiate the program two years ago, said the county could no longer afford the financial and moral costs of continuing it.
"I think we have created a monster that runs amok in our community, generating fear, mistrust and adds no value when it comes to public safety,” said Commissioner Roy Brooks.
It’s called the 287(g) agreement after a section of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes local law enforcement to be deputized to enforce federal immigration laws. Waybourn says Tarrant County’s arrangement guarantees someone will screen for undocumented arrestees at the jail 24 hours a day, whereas ICE agents only staff the jail during bankers hours.
Exactly how many people have been flagged for deportation since the 287(g) agreement was signed in June 2017 has remained unclear as the commissioners court debated renewing it over the past few weeks.
Because the department relies on paper records, Sheriff Bill Waybourn says it is too labor intensive to manually go through and do a full audit of the program. There isn’t a firm accounting of charges faced by those flagged for deportation when they were booked into the jail, or whether they were eventually convicted of the crime.
Waybourn says the exact costs of the program are also hard to determine, since deputies incorporate immigration checks into the rest of their jobs.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the sheriff said that there are 280 people in the Tarrant County jail with ICE detainers, and they were arrested on charges that ranged from misdemeanor offenses like criminal mischief and trespassing up to very serious felonies like sexual assault and homicide. About a quarter were arrested for drug charges.
Waybourn has touted the agreement as a public safety measure, because it is designed to take criminals off of the street and remove them from the country. He pushed for the agreement when he took over the sheriff’s office after running as a Tea Party conservative who talked tough about immigration. On Tuesday, he said the fears of undocumented people and their families were unwarranted.
“We are not out in the community conducting traffic stops because of the 287(g) immigration enforcement,” Waybourn said. “We are not conducting any type of raids or targeting exercises. And we are absolutely not racial profiling. This is something that happens inside the brick and mortar of the jail.”
In the hours of testimony that followed, it was clear that numerous opponents of the 287(g) agreement were unconvinced, and tensions between opponents and supporters of stepped-up immigration enforcement were palpable as dozens of county residents took to a lectern to inform, rebuke, and plead with their elected representatives.
Some said they wanted the program continued, that it made the county safer, and that people who enter the country illegally should be deported swiftly.
“We are a rule of law country. We’re breaking down. It is beyond imagination. You guys were elected by American citizen voters because illegals have no standing in our country,” said Sara Legvold, who led a failed attempt to remove a top Tarrant County Republican Party official because of his Muslim faith last year.
Opponents of the program said it made the county less safe because it made immigrant communities less likely to report crimes to local law enforcement.
“At best what we are witnessing is shoddy, careless, two-bit representation. You don’t have any data backing up the claim that 287(g) makes Tarrant County any safer,” said Mindia Whittier, an immigrant rights activist.
In the months leading up to this vote, a coalition of undocumented activists and their allies have led a campaign to build pressure to cancel the 287(g) agreement. Jessica Ramirez, who leads the group Ice Out Of Tarrant County, tearfully addressed the commissioner’s court.
“Two years ago you made a mistake, you signed our community away with absolutely no information, and today is your opportunity to keep us safe and demand accountable from [the sheriff’s office] which has still not provided information to you,” Ramirez said. “You ignore our pain, you ignore our voices, and you give us your backs.”
Throughout the meeting, Judge Glen Whitley repeatedly cautioned the crowd to quiet down as both sides punctuated the meeting with snapped, clapped, whooped and hissed responses to the speakers. One woman in a red Trump-45 jersey announced that “someone called a bitch.” Whittier was escorted out of the hall by sheriff’s deputies. And after the vote, activists stood up and marched out of the chamber, chanting.