With Little Change After Harris County Cuts 287(g), What Was Ever the Point?

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez address immigrant advocacy groups during a rally in which they pressured him to cut 287(g) in January.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez address immigrant advocacy groups during a rally in which they pressured him to cut 287(g) in January. Meagan Flynn
When Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced in February that he was cutting the controversial immigration enforcement program, 287(g), immigrant advocacy groups celebrated.

The move was a big deal. The voluntary program assigned ten Harris County sheriff's deputies to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with flagging inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. ICE would then place immigration detainers on whomever it saw fit, and the inmates would be transferred to ICE custody and queued up for possible deportation. The program had cost about $675,000 in taxpayer dollars per year. Terminating it was one of Gonzalez's major campaign pledges — a bold promise cheered by activist groups such as United We Dream and the Texas Organizing Project.

But as it turns out, while cutting 287(g) has saved HCSO manpower and resources, it has had virtually no effect on the amount of detainers issued, even without ten deputies assisting ICE. Apparently, the feds didn't need the help.

In the month of February, ICE issued 1,006 detainers on suspected undocumented immigrants in the Harris County Jail. In March, when HCSO spokesman Jason Spencer confirmed 287(g) was no longer in effect, that figure actually increased: There were 1,014 detainers issued that month, according to immigration detainer reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

In a way, this isn't too shocking, since Sheriff Gonzalez did say he planned to continue honoring ICE detainer requests. At the same time, ICE spokesman Gregory Palmore said that ICE has not devoted any additional personnel to flagging suspected undocumented immigrants at the Harris County Jail since the termination of 287(g). And even though the most recent statistics only measure changes after one month, Spencer said  the sheriff's office does not expect significant changes in ICE detainers issued in the future.

So that begs the question: If there's no difference in the amount of detainers ICE issues with or without help from Harris County deputies, what was ever the point of 287(g) to begin with?

For years, Harris County was the only county in the state to have the 287(g) contract. Former Harris County sheriff Tommy Thomas implemented 287(g) in 2008, and both his successors, Adrian Garcia and Ron Hickman, continued it. Before renewing it for the last time, in June 2016, Hickman faced massive backlash from immigrant groups as thousands of undocumented immigrants and allies marched outside the steps of the Harris County Jail.

Nevertheless, Hickman renewed the controversial partnership with ICE, saying at a news conference that the program was important for public safety. Data released to the Houston Press at the time showed that despite ICE and Hickman saying the program was designed to identify violent criminals, only about one quarter of inmates with immigration detainers in 2015 were charged with violent offenses; most were for drug possession or DWIs. (The Press has requested updated data.) Asked at the news conference if the data was at odds with the program's stated purpose, Hickman 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.”

Frances Valdez, an attorney and organizer with United We Dream who worked on the campaign to end 287(g), said that Gonzalez's decision to cut the contract sent a significant message to the immigrant community — regardless of the negligible change in detainers so far.

Having Harris County deputies in the jail doing ICE agents' duties, Valdez said, caused the immigrant community to essentially equate the sheriff with ICE. Gonzalez's decision to end that practice boosted the immigrant community's trust in law enforcement immensely, even with the knowledge that Gonzalez would still be cooperating with ICE one way or another, Valdez said. The new detainer data, she said, only proves that cutting 287(g) was a victory — because apparently the $675,000 was for nothing.

"What we always said at United We Dream was this is a good first step — that's what I continue to tell the sheriff," Valdez said. "287(g) was this tough on crime, tough on immigrants sentiment. It was rhetoric. It was a voluntary program that cost us money that had no purpose. [Cutting it] was the first step."

Valdez said United We Dream's goal would be to ultimately end the practice of local jails honoring ICE detainers. But she added that she realizes there are now steep consequences for sheriffs associated with that goal due to the looming passage of Senate Bill 4, otherwise known as the "anti-sanctuary cities" bill.

The bill, which has already passed both the Senate and the House, makes it illegal for sheriffs or police chiefs to enact policies prohibiting their officers from asking people about immigration status while patrolling the streets. If officials fail to cooperate with ICE detainers placed on inmates in their jails, they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and lose their badges. Jurisdictions can also be fined if local law enforcement "prohibits enforcement of immigration law." Gonzalez and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo already have policies that prohibit asking about immigration status — but now those policies are up in the air and will possibly become illegal.

Any progress Gonzalez had made with restoring the immigrant community's trust in law enforcement, Valdez said, is about to be shattered again.

"The reality is that Greg Abbott has held our local officials hostage," she said.

In January, President Donald Trump issued two immigration executive orders that have had visible effects on the local level. While before, ICE had only been directed to focus on violent criminals, now, the federal agency has expanded the groups to prioritize to the point that no undocumented immigrant is exempt from enforcement, attorneys say. For example: While ICE issued 1,014 detainers at the Harris County jail in March, at the same time last year, the agency issued 611. It's uncertain that this is a direct effect of Trump's executive order, but Valdez said it seems highly possible.

The executive order also seeks to ramp up ICE's cooperation with local law enforcement through the 287(g) program.

Thirteen Texas counties have already raised their hands as giddy volunteers to help out.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn