County commissioners on Tuesday moved ahead with a plan to give certain local law enforcement authorities the power to investigate people’s immigration status, despite concerns raised by one commissioner about details of the contract and possible civil rights issues.
Galveston County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to continue talks with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over an agreement to train some sheriff’s deputies to investigate county jail prisoners’ immigration status. The agreement is part of a federal program called 287 (g), which has been around since 1996.
The county has not yet joined the program. The vote directed the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office to complete a needs assessment to join the program. The sheriff’s office will still have other steps to complete before becoming part of the program, including negotiating a contract with the immigration agency.
County Judge Mark Henry and commissioners Joe Giusti, Ken Clark and Darrell Apffel voted in favor of it with little discussion.
Commissioner Stephen Holmes, who voted against the measure, raised concerns about the federal immigration agency leaving the county responsible for expenses and possible civil rights lawsuits.
The program essentially allows local law enforcement to conduct greater investigation into a person’s immigration status after that person is arrested for another crime and after the local agency receives training through the federal government.
If approved, the sheriff’s office would select deputies who work in inmate booking at the jail to attend a month of immigration-related training, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.
The sheriff’s office would be supplied with an immigration database, which those officers would use to investigate an inmate’s immigration status. The database would be used at the jail and not during arrests or patrolling, he said.
The deputies would not have the authority to deport a person.
The sheriff’s office books about one to five people a week who are suspected of being in the country illegally, Trochesset said. When a person is suspected of being in the country illegally, the office contacts the federal agency, which investigates, he said. This program would shift some of those responsibilities to local authorities, which Trochesset said could streamline the process.
But Holmes questioned whether the program just meant the county would be picking up the tab for what is supposed to be the federal government’s job.
Trochesset, who met with immigration and customs officials last week, said the agency had promised to cover the expenses of training and the computer database. The details had not been hashed out, he said.
“It’s going to make our job easier,” Trochesset said.
According to the immigration website, only three other counties and one municipality in the state have signed up for the program, despite the customs officials meeting with sheriffs around the state, Holmes said.
“Why is that?” Holmes asked. “We don’t have a good grasp on what ICE expects or what the goals are.”
A contract between the immigration agency and Harris County stipulated that the federal agency would only repay expenses if the agency had the money, he said. This could be cause for alarm, Holmes said.
Holmes said he also worried the added authorities could cause civil rights violations and leave the county on the hook for expensive lawsuits.
Trochesset said the contract terms had not yet been worked out, but had assurances from the federal agency that expenses would be paid.
There isn’t a deadline or particular timeline for joining the program, he said.