Hot-Button Immigration Issue Gets Little Discussion Among County Commissioners

It only took 15 seconds for the Commissioners Court of Harris County to approve three additional years of participation in 287(g) after hours of public testimony, mostly in opposition, to the program.

The two Houston Garcias, who, by the way, were not included in the Garcia segment of CNN's Latino in America, went toe-to-toe over the county's implementation of a federal program designed to identify and deport undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

"We can back out of the agreement at anytime. And the ICE shows up everyday to pick up people. There's usually not even 24 hours in our facility before they're taken to an ICE facility," said Sheriff Adrian Garcia as he defended his request for approval of the new agreement.

"I know what you all do now under the current agreement but this is if we do the second part of the intergovernmental agreement," commissioner Sylvia Garcia said. "I'm concerned about...these additional responsibilities and...this court should be a part of that process in terms of determining costs."

The budget request for the 287(g) program will cost Harris County taxpayers more than $2.5 million over the next three years for eight employees' salaries and anticipated overhead.

However, the hasty speed of the court's decision should concern anyone that is worried about city and state taxpayer money being used for federal programs. Even a disclaimer was required before Assistant County Attorney James Savage was allowed to answer Sylvia Garcia's questions about funding for the program because he had not had time to obtain an official county attorney opinion on her budgetary inquiries.

More than 200 people showed up to the meeting, filling the courtroom, hallway and the two "overflow" conference rooms on the 9th and 4th floors of the building. The court allowed time for about 20 citizens to voice their opinions on 287(g) before the vote.

A majority of the testimonies were opposed to the program due to concerns about racial profiling, county lawsuits and submitted evidence of problems encountered when the program has been implemented in other parts of the country

"If the police want to exercise their discretion to make an arrest for offenses where they have the power to issue a ticket, they can do that and that puts a lot of power in the hands of beat cops to decide. That's how racial profiling happens," said Rebecca Bernhardt from the ACLU of Texas. Bernhardt cited a University of California -- Berkeley study on the implementation of 287(g) in the city of Irving. "The police started looking for Latinos to pull over, started exercising their discretion to arrest Latinos at a much higher rate, and most of the Latinos that were affected were US citizens and lawful residents."

Supporters of 287(g) cited 9/11 hijackers as evidence of the need for 287(g.) "If 287 had been utilized, 18 of the 19 hijackers were here illegally...if they had been picked up... and their immigration status was checked, could 9/11 have been prevented? It's not something we'll ever know," said Janet Thomas of U.S. Border Watch.

The quick four-to-one decision in favor of keeping 287(g) was a shock to most of the attendees. Sylvia Garcia was the only one to vote against the program.

"It was automatic. It was so immediate that there was no chance for any discussion at all. It was as if all the testimonies that had been given were totally ignored," said Miles Rodriguez who was in courthouse during the vote.

"The next step is to start documenting cases of abuses so we can come back to show the elected officials who have supported [287(g)] that it's a flawed program and it is causing community hardship," said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of America Para Todos.

There will be more 287(g) news today. City council member Toni Lawrence has called a special session at City Hall at 1 p.m. in an attempt to overturn Mayor White's decision not to implement 287(g) in city jails.

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