I Went On A Jail Tour In Harris County: Here’s What I Learned

Frances Valdez, Immigration Attorney

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has invested in the business of deportations, facilitating every traffic stop and witness statement from their own officers and local police departments into a potential deportation.

The pillar of Harris County’s deportation business is its participation in 287(g), a voluntary federal deportation contract that involves deputizing local law enforcement to do the federal government’s job. This program only now exists in 32 jurisdictions in the country; Over 400 other localities have chosen to end or significantly mitigate any interaction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), citing budget, public safety, and legal concerns. Harris County’s 287(g) contract is set to expire on June 30, 2016 … unless Sheriff Ron Hickman chooses to renew it.

This relationship between Harris County and ICE comes at a cost of more than $1 million a year in taxpayer’s money, including my own as a Houstonian. Its impact: further erosion of already fraught trust between law enforcement and communities of color, the continued suffering of community members who face or lose family members to deportation, and a daily burden of stress and anxiety carried by Houston’s many immigrants surrounding the threat of deportation each day.

As a member of Houston Beyond ICE, a campaign to end the 287(g) contract and County involvement in deportations, I recently participated in a tour of the county jail and met with Sheriff Hickman about the continuation of 287(g), it’s current implementation and how it impacts the day-to-day safety and well-being of the community.

Here are five key things I’ve learned:

1. Some Harris County Sheriff Deputies are paid to essentially work as ICE agents in the jail, even though they are county employees.

In 2012, the U.S. Government spent $18 billion in immigration enforcement, more than the U.S. spends on the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, and all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined. Despite belonging to the Department of Homeland Security, the most well-funded law enforcement agency in the country, ICE operations are being subsidized by Harris County. The County voluntarily provides personnel time, work-space, and holding cells to ICE. Eight Sheriff Deputies have been trained and deputized as ICE agents. They work hand in hand in the same space as ICE and dress as ICE agents. In essence, their sole job responsibilities under the County are to act as federal ICE agents, using local resources towards a federal responsibility.

Harris County pays an estimated $1 million to staff the 287(g) contract. Sheriff Hickman has claimed that he is reimbursed $800,000 of this, but he is wrong. The $800,000 he refers to is a completely unrelated federal grant. Most counties in the country get similar funding, but have no 287(g) program and don’t spend any money funding their own officers to do immigration enforcement work. Harris County would save a million dollars each year by ending the 287(g) program.

Our money is better spent on community improvement initiatives, including addressing the many other concerns and problems with the Harris County jail system. Why can’t the federal government do its own job?

2. Immigrants can be forced to leave the U.S. for something as common as having an expired registration sticker.

Sheriff Hickman has asserted that a simple traffic violation will not get you deported. However, a focused review of Sheriff and county jail procedures shows that a traffic violation could lead to questions about immigration status and fingerprints taken, which are subsequently shared with federal agencies. This could happen whether or not that person is ultimately taken to court for the original traffic violation; being pulled over as an immigrant can set in play a series of events that have severe consequences for immigrants and their families, including permanent separation of a family unit.

In one example of how this is being enacted every day, Sheriff Hickman has confirmed that his deputies arrest immigrants for driving without a license, as opposed to the more common practice of just issuing them a ticket. In Texas, driving without a license is usually punishable with a small fine.

Imagine this common scenario: You’re driving home from work at the end of a busy month. Things have been so hectic that you haven’t had time to get your oil changed or renew your registration sticker, which expired the past month. You’re running through your long to-do list in your head, lost in your thoughts of what the kids will eat for dinner, and accidentally roll a stop sign. Before you know it, you see those dreaded flashing lights behind you. For most people, this scenario would end in frustration and a financial inconvenience of a few hundred dollars to pay your ticket, plus a much-needed pit stop at your closest Kroger to take care of your sticker. Now imagine you were undocumented, meaning in Texas, you’re not easily able to get a driver’s license. The deputy who pulled you over has one of two choices: the deputy can choose to simply give you a ticket for an expired registration sticker or the deputy can arrest you for driving without a license and/or failure to ID. Never mind that there are kids waiting for you at home, dinner to be prepared, and family to visit over the weekend. Once you’re arrested and booked into the jail, a formal process begins which includes official questions on your immigration status while your fingerprints provided to federal authorities.

It is common knowledge that there is an extra risk to “driving while brown.” When asked about a system of accountability and how his office ensures that racial profiling does not occur, Sheriff Hickman responded that it simply does not happen, but was unable to provide information on how he can be certain of that statement.

Riot Gear artwork by Alondra Chavez [Twitter: @chaveztherapper]

3. The 287(g) program fosters a ripe environment for racial profiling.

The Sheriff Office screens and targets immigrants who enter the jail, setting forth an entire process that results in the differential treatment of anyone believed to not be a citizen. It’s even been documented in the past where ICE has mistakenly detained U.S. citizens. Once a person is arrested, a Sheriff’s Deputy takes an individual to the processing center at 1201 Commerce Street. Upon entering the facility, the immigrant’s fingerprints are taken. Those fingerprints are shared with federal agencies including the FBI. The FBI shares those fingerprints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to identify individuals for deportation. This is before charges are filed and way before a conviction (if actually found guilty) occurs.

The suspected immigrant is then put through the standard booking process where Sheriff employees asks about immigration status and country of birth.

4. ICE has been given full, Big Brother-style access to any immigrant in the jail, even those who are legal permanent residents.

ICE has unfettered access to immigrants once they enter the Harris County jail. From the time an immigrant is fingerprinted to the time that an immigrant is released, ICE has access to interview and eventually detain immigrants.

The Sheriff’s office was unable to give information about the ICE interview process happening in their jails, making it seem like the Sheriff actually has no idea what ICE agents do in his jails or whether they are respecting the constitutional rights of all detained people during these interviews. The Sheriff did not know what questions were asked or if an attorney is present at the interviews. We know from other jails across the country that these interviews are often conducted in coercive ways, with threats to individuals to sign their own deportation orders before the full merits of their case have been evaluated by a judge, a right we would all want for ourselves were we in the same situation. These coercive and unjust practices are often directly responsible for sealing an immigrant’s deportation.

5. After being released from jail, rather than going home to their families, immigrants are instead turned over straight into the hands of ICE.

The Harris County jail will release inmates upon receiving a notice that they have posted bond, that they fulfilled their sentence, or their case is dismissed. Before an inmate is released, the Central Records department reviews their case to make sure that another law enforcement agency is not requesting they transfer the inmate to their custody. If an immigration hold is placed by ICE, a voluntary and often unconstitutional request, then ICE will be called and asked if they will pick up the inmate. ICE can then literally walk down the hall to the released area of the jail and detain the immigrant.

The Sheriff’s Office states that inmates are not held beyond the date that they are scheduled for release. For example, if an immigrant is scheduled for release on April 29th and ICE does not pick them up before midnight on April 29th, then the Sheriff’s Office is obligated to release them. However, ICE has a van that picks up immigrants every evening at 11 PM. This process still poses grave concerns because any detention beyond the time they are otherwise released could be a violation of their constitutional rights. Moreover, there are concerns that the release process for immigrants varies from other individuals solely to facilitate a transfer to ICE, again pointing to differential treatment.

An end to 287(g)

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department uses approximately $1 million dollars of county funds to house and provide 8 personnel to ICE, an agency with an annual federal budget of $6 billion. The county is doing the job of the federal government, a voluntary task resulting in the increased mistrust of law enforcement by Houston’s communities of color.

The end of 287(g) would be an easy first step in saving the county money and helping to strengthen trust between the immigrant community and the Sheriff. Ultimately, we need to work towards real solutions to public safety — Harris County should get out of the deportation business and use local resources to invest in the communities and prevent crime before it starts. Harris County is far too deeply entangled with ICE — it’s time to cut those ties and focus county resources and support back where it belongs — in our community.

“No Dreaming Beyond This Point” artwork by Alondra Chavez [Twitter: @chaveztherapper]