On Saturday afternoon, roughly 1,000 immigrants, driving in from 33 states, descended on San Jacinto Street right outside the Harris County Jail bearing messages for the sheriff: "Dear Ron Hickman," one sign read, "please keep our families together."
The immigrants were protesting the sheriff's office's participation in a controversial federal program, called 287(g), that allows trained deputies to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, flagging potential undocumented immigrants whom ICE may decide to deport once they serve their time in jail.
Critics of the program—many from United We Dream, the organization hosting the massive protest—have said that it incites fear of law enforcement within the immigrant community. The sheriff's office aids in the deportation of about 14 people per month—167 total in 2015, according to data provided to the Houston Press by the sheriff's office. On Saturday, protesters demanded that Hickman abandon the contract with ICE so that no more families have to be ripped apart.
One such protester was 21-year-old Alexis Molina, who said his father, an undocumented immigrant who had lived in the country for 28 years, was recently arrested for a DWI while simply moving his parked car so it wouldn't be towed. He said that deputies had intimidated his father into admitting he was undocumented, and now Molina fears his father may end up deported. Most of all, he fears what that could mean for his 23-year-old brother, who is mentally disabled. Molina had to quit his job as a fork-lifter in order to take care of his brother full-time while their father was in jail; their mother had passed away when Molina was young,
"My brother is the one who really depends on my father," Molina said. "If my dad ends up deported, [my brother] might have to be go into a home, and the government's just gonna have to fund that—and waste resources deporting my dad. It all seems counterproductive."
Ryan Sullivan, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said that the 287(g) program only targets violent criminals for deportation. However, according to HCSO's own data, only just over a quarter of people deported were charged with violent crimes such as assault. In fact, the majority of people who were deported were charged with DWIs like Molina's dad, making up 23 percent of all deportations through 287(g). Another 24 had been charged with drug offenses—two being marijuana possession.
Sullivan said the most likely reason non-violent offenders were deported is because ICE targets them if they have been deported in the past and returned.
"ICE, just like every other law enforcement agency is strapped for money and manpower," Sullivan said. "They don't even have the time or inclination to worry about non-violent offenders, or non-criminal aliens [AKA, 'undocumented immigrants']. They only have time to worry about the hardened criminals and taking them out of the country."
That's why Sullivan insisted that undocumented immigrants shouldn't be afraid of interacting with officers on the street—officers aren't going to be pressing people about their immigration status during a traffic stop or if someone calls up and says they are a victim of a crime, Sullivan said.
But Sheridan Aguirre, an organizer with United We Dream, said it's not that easy.
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"There's just an inherent mistrust of law enforcement," Aguirre said. "Immigrants in general are conditioned to have this fear of police, and it's hard to unlearn those fears. This 287(g) program only serves to solidify that. The sheriff has the power to end this contract. It doesn't have to be this way. "
Aguirre said that United We Dream met with Hickman last April to address the community's fears, but got the sense that Hickman was not listening. Aguirre said he felt as though Hickman was criminalizing the immigrant community, essentially telling Aguirre and his team that "your people need to behave differently" and then there will be no problems, according to Aguirre.
That's why, Aguirre said, they brought 1,000 more immigrants to Hickman's office this time, hoping the message would come through a little stronger.