A new state law allowing Texas peace officers to question people about their immigration status won’t mean major changes in the way local agencies handle minor offenses, according to the leaders of some of the county’s largest agencies.
The law, Senate Bill 4, has raised fears from some corners that local agencies will act as de facto immigration officers.
Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said Monday his deputies would not be checking a person’s immigration status during offenses such as traffic stops.
“As a matter of practice, no,” Trochesset said. “If they violate a law and go to the county jail, we’ll follow through.”
The law, known as Senate Bill 4, goes into effect on Sept. 1. As is normal with laws passed during a legislative session, agencies are given time to review the specifics of an issue before they can enforce it.
Some agencies may change their policies to fit the new law or offer training to their employees on how to enforce it.
While supporters of the law say it will help crack down on illegal immigration, its critics say the law will unfairly target some groups and amounts to racial profiling.
The law, which was styled during the regular session as an anti-sanctuary cities measure, also punishes agencies and officials with fines if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
That doesn’t appear to be a problem at the sheriff’s office.
In Galveston County, the Senate Bill 4 changes are coming as the sheriff’s office is working to increase its cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by joining a program known as 287(g). The program gives special training to deputies, and allows them access to a larger database when checking the immigration status of a person being held in the county jail.
On Tuesday, Trochesset said his deputies would not, as a practice, be asking people about their immigration status during an unrelated investigation, he said.
The department will continue to check the status of people who are booked into the Galveston County jail, a practice that has been in place for years, he said.
“We have been doing the job and it’s never stopped,” he said. “It’s never been an issue. Our jail has been communicating with immigration.”
In Galveston County’s most populated cities, departments are discussing how they’ll use the new power afforded by the law.
Texas City Police Chief Robert Burby said he wouldn’t advise his officers to ask about immigration status during a traffic stop because of the risk of adding more headaches to an already irritating situation.
“When you have a traffic offense, that is not one of the best times for law enforcement or citizens,” Burby said. “We’re crafting our delivery and working on our delivery and going forward very carefully so we don’t inflame anything.”
Galveston Police Chief Richard Boyle said the department is still developing a curriculum to teach officers about when to inquire about immigration status.
“I don’t envision our officers going to that extent, unless there are extenuating circumstances,” Boyle said. “It’s part of our job to enforce all the laws, whether that has an effect on how the public reacts to us remains to be seen.”
The League City Police Department already has decided it wouldn’t change its current practices.
“The League City Police Department has never asked for immigration status on traffic stops and we will not change,” said League City Police spokesman Kelly Williamson in an email statement. “The only time immigration status comes into question is during the booking process after an arrest.”
Senate Bill 4 officially takes effect on Sept. 1. The law is being challenged in federal court by a group of major Texas cities, including Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and El Paso.
The lawsuit aims to block the implementation of the law but, so far, the court has not ordered for it to be delayed.