Sheriff Gonzalez Cuts Controversial Immigration Program Helping With Deportations

Sheriff Gonzalez spoke to immigration activists calling for the termination of 287(g) in January.
Sheriff Gonzalez spoke to immigration activists calling for the termination of 287(g) in January.
Meagan Flynn
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Following through on a campaign promise, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has severed a controversial partnership with federal immigration officials that facilitated deportations, the sheriff's office announced Wednesday.

Costing taxpayers roughly $675,000 per year, the program, known as 287(g), assigned ten sheriff's deputies to work within the Harris County Jail flagging undocumented immigrants, ultimately helping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decide who should be held and transferred into federal custody.

Gonzalez notified ICE about his decision to discontinue the partnership in a letter Tuesday afternoon.  It was sent on the same day the Trump administration announced its intention to increase 287(g) partnerships with local law enforcement across the country, and to expand the classes of undocumented immigrants subject to deportation, a departure from the federal government's primary focus on criminals.

Gonzalez told the Houston Press Wednesday that the heightened political climate surrounding immigration issues did not factor into his decision to cut 287(g), saying this was his intention since he began campaigning for sheriff a year ago. With an overcrowded jail and overworked staff continually asked to work overtime, Gonzalez said there are more critical uses for the $675,000 and more pressing assignments for the ten deputies currently assisting ICE.

"I felt that it was time to change course, close this chapter and move away from this controversial program and redirect our resources to other local public safety priorities," Gonzalez said. "We were truly an outlier in this for a long, long time. Two hundred fifty-one counties out of 254 counties have been operating without this program. To me, it just made sense [to cut it]."

Gonzalez clarified that ICE will still be allowed to use its own resources to flag undocumented immigrants in the jail and said he will still honor any of ICE's requests to detain anyone they can be transferred to ICE.

And in a contentious political climate in which Governor Greg Abbott threatens to deny funding to law enforcement agencies reducing cooperation with ICE, that's a key distinction.

Abbott has made banning so-called sanctuary cities in Texas an "emergency item" in the Legislature this year. A bill that has already passed through the Senate would impose financial punishment on any jurisdiction that does not honor all ICE detainer requests or makes any policy "discouraging" police officers from inquiring about people's immigration status during arrests. The ban would apply even to college campus police. Abbott has already revoked $1.5 million in criminal justice grant funding from Travis County after Sheriff Sandy Hernandez announced she would only honor ICE detainer requests for undocumented immigrants charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous smuggling; otherwise, ICE would need a warrant.

Even though Gonzalez is still keeping ICE around, avoiding the wrath of Abbott, many immigration activists on Wednesday morning heralded the sheriff's move as a step in the right direction. Groups like United We Dream and the Texas Organizing Project held repeated demonstrations for months, pressuring the sheriff to end 287(g).

“Today Texas immigrants celebrate a racial justice victory," United We Dream organizer Oscar Hernandez said in a statement. "Today we are one step closer to defeating the mass deportation plans of Governor Abbott and Donald Trump. I have seen firsthand as my uncle was put into the deportation pipeline for failing to pay a toll. Without 287(g), we are one step closer to living a life with dignity."

According to data from the Harris County Sheriff's Office provided to the Houston Press last year, 287(g) facilitated the deportations of 167 people in 2015. While Gonzalez's predecessor, Ron Hickman, who renewed the contract with ICE last June, said the focus was primarily on violent criminals, the data showed only one quarter of those deported thanks to the program were charged with violent crimes against persons. The majority had been charged with drug crimes or DWIs.

Before Gonzalez's termination of the program, Harris County was one of just four out of 254 Texas counties that had a 287(g) contract, and one of just 38 across the country.

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