Is This Red County’s Debate Over Helping Feds Flag Unauthorized Immigrants a Sign of Changes to Come?

In deep red Tarrant County, the fate of a program that has become a symbol of the “tough on immigration” tactics of national and state Republican leaders is facing an unexpectedly difficult road to renewal after outcry from immigrant rights activists and local advocacy groups.In recent weeks, opponents of the county’s 287(g) agreement — which allows sheriff employees at the county jail to flag and hold unauthorized immigrants in their custody for federal immigration authorities — have lobbied county commissioners, held rallies and turned out dozens of people at a county meeting to testify against the partnership.Some see the boisterous opposition as a sign of changing political trends in the historically conservative county, which has seen Democrats make gains in recent years.“There’s a strong correlation between rejecting these agreements and emerging or strong Democratic local success,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who is studying the dissolution of these agreements in counties across the country. “The fact that there’s friction about it suggests that the county is in transition politically.”In recent years, large urban counties across the country have moved away from 287(g) agreements — named for the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that authorizes them — citing concerns with costs and legal liabilities for holding people beyond the legal limit for immigration authorities.In 2017, Harris County ended its partnership with immigration authorities after the election of a new Democratic sheriff. That same year, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls said he would not start a program in his office because it would cost half a million dollars in taxpayer money to train his deputies for the program.But in Tarrant County, Sheriff Bill E. Waybourn joined dozens of other rural and suburban counties, including Rockwall, in signing up for the program when he was elected two years ago — making the county an outlier among the state’s largest counties, which had rejected such agreements.Waybourn said he joined the partnership because he saw unauthorized immigrants who committed crimes not being identified for ICE because the jail only had immigration officers working on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those offenders would leave the jail and come back after committing another crime, he said.By having his staff trained in the enforcement of immigration law, he said, the jail could run immigration checks all the time and more consistently flag and turn over unauthorized immigrants to federal immigration authorities. Their deportations, Waybourn said, would lead to a safer community.But local activists say the program creates distrust between law enforcement and immigrants in the community who fear they could be deported for minor traffic offenses, such as having a broken tail light or running a red light.That fear, opponents say, also leads to less safe communities because immigrants do not report crimes for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities. They also say it could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and leave it open to lawsuits.Waybourn said he has set up the program to only turn over people who have committed crimes that are Class B misdemeanors or higher. If someone was sent to jail for a traffic infraction, which usually fall under a Class C misdemeanor, he or she would not be flagged for ICE by jail employees.After the county entered the program, several community organizations concerned about its impact on the immigrant community formed a coalition called “ICE Out of Tarrant” to push for an end to the 287(g) agreement.“If we can start with one of the reddest, deep red, blood red counties in the state, we’ll take it,” said Giovanny Torres, a member of the coalition. “We’ve all gotta start somewhere.”During the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, County Judge B. Glen Whitley, a Republican, expressed concern about how the program was being implemented and whether people were being turned over to ICE for traffic infractions. Because of the make-up of the commissioner’s court — two Democrats and three Republicans — Whitley will likely cast the deciding vote.After the meeting, he said he had analyzed data from the jail and could not find any evidence that the sheriff’s office had turned over people for Class C misdemeanors or that contradicted Waybourn’s claim that the program was costing only about $1,800 because of reimbursements from the federal government — though advocates had provided data from the state's jail commission showing that the jail had reported a cost of $345,000 for holding immigrants for ICE in April. But after looking at the data, Whitley said he plans to vote to renew the contract even though he understands the concerns of those who want the program ended.“It’s the toughest vote I’ve ever taken,” said Whitley, who’s served as county judge for 13 years and was a county commissioner for 10 years before that. “I feel very compassionate about the folks who are in fear but the folks we’re trying to deport are the ones that are bad actors.”The program’s supporters say they have felt the increased pressure from opponents to end the program, but that their opposition is not surprising. They’ve seen similar opposition to other immigration proposals, like the state’s sanctuary cities ban in 2017. Even though Democrats and liberals are getting more organized, they say, the majority of the county is still conservative.  Continue reading...

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