On a humid Tuesday morning in mid June, more than 100 parents, daughters, sons and activists gathered on the steps of the Tarrant County courthouse. The county’s commissioners were convening for a vote on a controversial agreement between the sheriff’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and members of the crowd were anxious to voice their concerns.
“I worry about my family,” one mother said, shielding her eyes from the sun and speaking through a cloth face mask. “I worry that we’re a target.”
The agreement, called a 287(g), is a voluntary pact allowing sheriff’s offices to act on behalf of ICE. Deputies receive training from ICE officials and can assess immigration status via jailhouse interviews. They can also hold people in jail for longer periods of time if ICE has an interest in picking them up. In effect, people who are undocumented for any reason can be more easily deported after something as simple as a traffic violation.
“It’s basically asking local law enforcement to do ICE’s work for them,” said attorney Jessica Pishko. Pishko works for The Justice Collaborative, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, where she conducts extensive research on the power wielded by sheriffs.
“There’s no research to suggest that it leads to anything positive,” she said.
The sheriff’s office argues that 287(g) makes Tarrant County safer. Immigrant rights advocates argue the program is discriminatory and that it creates more problems than it solves.
“Even if you yourself aren’t undocumented, if you live in Fort Worth, you’re probably thinking, ‘We can’t call the police, because grandma might be deported,’” said Pamela Young, an organizer with the criminal justice collective United Fort Worth. “If you’re always living in fear, if you’re always looking around the corner, what kind of quality of life do you have? What kind of effect does that have on your family? On your children?”
There were many children in attendance at the June 16 county commissioners meeting, and some of them were on the list of 75 people who signed up to speak.
“I am here because you cannot silence the voices of immigrants that make America great,” said one concerned citizen, an 18-year-old and the daughter of two immigrants.
Some advocates in attendance were furious that Judge Glen Whitley, who presides over the commissioners court, mandated that anyone who wanted to speak at the meeting had to attend in person. Despite the mandate, at least one county commissioner attended the meeting via video conference.
“It was a move to silence us,” said Young, who attended many commissioner meetings to voice her opposition to 287(g). “But people were determined to speak. They took vacation time, they weathered the pandemic, they did what they could to be there.”
Yet it didn’t move three of the commissioners. After seven hours of tearful testimony, the vote fell along party lines: the county’s two Democratic commissioners voted against the agreement; the three Republicans voted for it. The crowd left the conference room, but scores of protesters remained outside the courthouse. As some members of the crowd chanted, yelling “the power of the people won’t stop,” Young started thinking.
“We’ve done enough talking,” she remembered thinking. “It’s time to hold people accountable.”
Pishko said the 287(g) agreement is a symptom of a larger problem: the increasing entanglement between the immigration system, which is a civil process, and the criminal legal system.
“Today, it is often hard to explain where the criminal justice system ends and the immigration process begins,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and the author of the book Crimmigration Law.
When people are arrested and booked in county jail, jail officials must run their fingerprints through Department of Homeland Security databases. These databases include the information on anyone who has had previous interactions with ICE, and if there is a match, ICE officials can ask the jail to hold the person in question through what’s commonly called a detainer.
Detainers give the county jail the power to hold someone for at least 48 hours so ICE officials can travel to pick them up. In Texas, sheriffs are bound by law to honor detainers, meaning jails must hold people even if they have posted bail or gotten their charges dropped.
But Homeland Security databases aren’t the only way sheriff’s offices can alert ICE to the presence of a person who might be undocumented.
Inmates in counties that have 287(g) agreements in place can be asked where they are from and if they are a citizen, and even though people are not legally bound to answer, they often do. Then, they can be flagged for ICE.
“Those flagged by ICE are treated differently than others who are facing the same charges,” Pishko wrote in The Appeal. “They may not be released pretrial while they fight the case, which increases their risk of a criminal conviction, and they may be barred access to the same programming others receive.”
That programming includes pretrial diversion, she explains, through which people in need of counseling for mental health or substance abuse can seek help.
The complaints about 287(g) extend far beyond the legal process, though. Organizers such as Young and Sindy Mata decry the human toll the agreement has on the Latinx and migrant communities in Tarrant County.
“The biggest impact is the fear it instills in families,” said Mata, an organizer with RAICES, an immigrant and refugee legal services center.
Mata and Young share stories about friends and community members who live life in constant fear. Some of them refuse to drive, for fear that a minor traffic stop could lead to deportation. One immigrant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he fears for his safety even though he has the proper legal documentation.
“I feel like the police are out to get me,” he said. “This just feels like another way to criminalize us, another way to tell us we don’t belong here.”
Another immigrant, an undocumented man, was arrested after a scuffle with an animal control officer who was angry the man’s family did not lock up their dog. He was held in the county jail for days, then shipped to a detention center in Alvarado. Ultimately, he narrowly avoided deportation.
“People like the sheriff always talk about [the 287(g) program] being about ‘safety,’ but it doesn’t keep us safe to threaten deportation for not locking up your dog,” Young said. “Let’s say you have someone who commits a DUI or DWI, and they’re undocumented. They shouldn’t be deported for that. They should receive due process, just like anyone else, and that’s what unfair: that they don’t receive that due process. It’s the same crime as anyone else, but the punishment is getting sent to another country.”
There are two ways to end 287(g): Convince the sheriff to end the agreement or get it voted out by the commissioners court.
Since the latter failed, advocates are now turning their attention to the former. However, they’re not harboring any hopes that Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn will sever ties with ICE. The sheriff is friendly with President Donald Trump, an ardent ICE supporter, and Waybourn has been slammed by critics for racist comments about migrants in county jail. Furthermore, the sheriff is adamant that the 287(g) agreement is paramount to the county’s safety.
Jennifer Gabbert, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said 1,445 ICE detainers have been placed on arrestees within the last year, and 309 of those detainers were placed by Waybourn’s office.
“The arrest charges included, but [were] not limited to, assault, burglary, multiple DWIs, homicide, indecency with child, kidnapping, robbery and sexual assault,” Gabbert said. “When you ask about this program making the community safer, surely you would agree that is what happens when individuals charged with these crimes are arrested and held responsible for their crimes.”
Yet Pishko contends that the program, in addition to entangling a civil procedure with a legal one, is ultimately unnecessary.
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“The simplest argument is it's not the sheriff’s job to do immigration law,” she said. “Their job is to arrest and keep people alive in jail. Why should Waybourn get extra responsibility?”
In recent months, Waybourn has come under fire for a slew of deaths in the Tarrant County jail. In May, a woman gave birth in her cell without anyone noticing, and an incarcerated man committed suicide after jail officials did not complete the required 30-minute, face-to-face observation checks. That same month, the jail temporarily lost its state certification. These events have only fueled Young’s advocacy and groups like New Sheriff Now Tarrant County, which is urging county residents to vote out Waybourn Nov. 3.
Young was discouraged by the county commissioners vote, but she is now wholly focused on Election Day. And while Pishko said dissolving the 287(g) agreement would only be a start in the disentanglement of the immigration system and the criminal justice system, she said it’s still an important step.
That’s why both said the same thing about their hopes and efforts going forward: “We gotta get a new sheriff.”