Amid Protests, Sheriff Hickman Renews Program That Facilitates Deportations

At a rally held June 11 outside the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
At a rally held June 11 outside the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Gilbert Bernal

“It's been a hard day,” Citllali Alvarez said with a sigh, walking with a dozen members of United We Dream to a shade tree after protesting Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman's decision to continue a program that facilitates deportations of undocumented people.

She had just come from a press conference where more United We Dream members decried the outcome of a Supreme Court decision Thursday morning that, because of a tie 4-4 vote, effectively blocked President Barack Obama's landmark immigration reforms. Obama's Deferred Action for Parents of America would have provided thousands of undocumented parents temporary work permits and driver's licenses, shielding them from the threat of deportation.

Hours after the high court took away that protection, Hickman announced he had decided to continue a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called 287(g), in which nine certified deputies flag inmates who appear to be undocumented and report them to ICE. Then, federal agents decide whether to take them to immigration court to begin deportation proceedings once the person's criminal case is adjudicated. Last year, 287(g) facilitated the deportation of 167 people, according to data provided by the sheriff's office.

Both of the day's decisions, Alvarez said, did nothing but give the immigrant community more reasons to stay behind closed doors. 

"It's false rhetoric that this is protecting us and actually helping us. The real issue here is, is [Hickman] upholding public safety when the community is telling him, 'This isn't keeping us safe'?" Alvarez said. "'It's keeping us in the shadows.'"

Just two weeks ago, United We Dream brought together more than 1,000 people from across the country to protest Hickman's partnership with ICE right outside the sheriff's office in downtown Houston. They asked him not to renew the partnership, but at a press conference Thursday, Hickman said he decided to continue it for public safety reasons, as Alvarez had predicted.

While the sheriff's office has said that, because of ICE's limited resources, 287(g) targets violent criminals, only about one quarter of the people deported through 287(g) last year were charged with violent crimes against persons, according to the sheriff's office's data. Most commonly, undocumented people were charged with DWIs or drug possession.

Asked whether that appeared to contradict the focus of 287(g), Hickman said, “It depends on how you define the focus, I guess. Obviously, we know what the impact of drugs is on our society. As I mentioned, there was the sheriff's deputy who was killed by a drunk driver [who was undocumented]. All of those are a danger to society.”

At United We Dream's massive protest two weeks ago, the Houston Press met 21-year-old Alexis Molina, who said his father had been arrested in April on suspicion of DWI while simply moving his parked car so it would not be towed. A deputy intimidated his father into admitting he was undocumented, Molina said, and now Molina is afraid that the feds will take him to immigration court.

But Molina's 23-year-old autistic brother depends on their father for care. With his father in jail, Molina had to quit his job in order to take care of his brother full-time, and can't imagine what will happen to him if their father is sent back to Mexico. Molina would need to stay in the States so his brother could still have access to specialized medical care.

United We Dream protesters gathered outside the sheriff's office to protest 287(g) Thursday.EXPAND
United We Dream protesters gathered outside the sheriff's office to protest 287(g) Thursday.
Meagan Flynn

Alvarez said stories like Molina's are why hundreds of protesters held signs asking Hickman to keep families together and to end 287(g).

Still, Hickman emphasized in the press conference that undocumented immigrants have no reason to fear police because of this program. He accused immigrant advocacy groups of spreading misinformation about 287(g) and clarified cops will never ask about a person's immigration status during a traffic stop, while responding to a call or interacting with people on the street.

Immigrants at the protest asked why, even if that is true, Hickman feels he must voluntarily continue with 287(g) when it only contributes to fear that families could be torn apart? We asked Hickman how he would respond.

He said, “I feel the program is effective in doing what it's supposed to do: removing criminal aliens from the country as a consequence for both being a criminal and undocumented. It separates families, yes. But the families have the choice to go together if they want to. If they want to go back to Mexico, then they can.”

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