Two years after signing on to a program that allows Galveston County deputies to act as immigration enforcement agents, the county has reported spending nearly $600,000 annually in jail costs related to holding people suspected of being in the country illegally.
In the year before signing the agreement, the county reported spending about a quarter of the amount, $163,000.
The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail, said the increased costs, which are reported monthly to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, likely are the result of more people being reported to the state because of their immigration status, not the result of more being detained based on immigration status.
Some of the people, including men and women charged with serious felonies, would have been held at the jail because of their immigration status.
What the numbers do show is the change that’s happened at the county jail under the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.
Since signing its partnership agreement with federal authorities, the number of people being held at the county jail while also on immigration detainers at any single time has increased dramatically. The jail went from holding less than a dozen people at a time on immigration detainers in 2016, to holding nearly 60 people on detainers by January 2018.
The people held on detainers will face their criminal charges in Galveston County, officials said. When that work is finished, regardless of the outcome of the charge, the people on detainers all are likely heading to the same place: a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston.
From there, they’ll face possible deportation from the United States.
Galveston County’s 2017 agreement with ICE is set to expire today, and while some Texas governments have debated whether to renew their agreements, Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said there was no question whether he planned to renew it.
“I think it’s the proper thing to do,” Trochesset said. “They’re violating the laws by breaking whatever law sent them to our jail. Then, on top of that, they’re in the country illegally. My philosophy to that is that they’ve violated two laws.”
Civil rights groups, however, have urged the county to end its agreement with the federal government, saying the financial and community costs are too high.
In June 2017, Galveston County joined 12 other Texas counties that signed up for the program amid a federal push to get more jurisdictions to participate. Today, it is one of 25 Texas counties, out of 254 total, to have a signed agreement with ICE, according to the agency.
The program, known only under its bureaucratic designation 287(g), allows local law enforcement officers to be trained to act as immigration enforcement officers. Under a variation of the program the county joined, deputies at the Galveston County jail are trained to check the status of people as they are booked into the jail.
People deputies suspect of being in the country illegally are flagged and brought to the attention of the immigration agency. A person flagged is noted in the county’s booking system as being on an “immigration detainer,” and essentially put on a different track than a person whose immigration status is not in question.
Once people on detainers are eligible to be released from jail — either on bond, by having charges dropped, by being found not guilty or finishing a sentence — they can be detained for another 48 hours, so ICE has the opportunity to collect and potentially deport them.
When the county signed up for the program in 2017, it came amid a change in federal immigration policies. In the latter years of the Obama administration, ICE focused on identifying and detaining people with serious criminal records.
“Unless someone was convicted of a felony, they weren’t interested in putting a hold on anyone,” Trochesset said.
After President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the priorities changed to target all “incarcerated foreign-born individuals with criminal charges or convictions,” according to ICE.
Today, Galveston County have five deputies trained under the 287(g) program, according to an ICE spokesman.
ICE generally arrives at the county jail within 12 hours. Trochesset was not aware of a time when the agency ever missed a pickup, he said.
The exact number of people transferred from the Galveston County Jail into ICE custody over the two years of the program isn’t entirely clear.
In response to questions from The Galveston County Daily News, an ICE spokesman in Houston said Galveston County’s ICE-trained deputies had flagged 45 people as potential undocumented immigrants so far this fiscal year.
The agency could not immediately provide information about how many people have been transferred under the whole length of the agreement, or how many of those people were ultimately deported.
However, other numbers indicate that there have been dramatic increases in the number of people being flagged and transferred with the county’s assistance.
Galveston County signed its agreement with ICE in June 2017.
In the 12 months before that, the jail reported holding an average of 11 people a month on immigration detainers, according to the data supplied to the jail commission.
In the 12 months after the agreement was signed, the average number of people being held on the jail with immigration detainers increased to an average of 39 people. The average increased again over the next 12 months, to 41 people a month.
In January 2018, the jail reported holding 57 people with immigration detainers at one time.
On a single day last week, the county jail’s website listed 34 people held on immigration detainers. Most of the people were men from Mexico, according to court documents. Other home countries were listed as being Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Cuba.
Most of the people being held on immigration detainers have their bonds set at less than $5,000, meaning they’d likely only have to put up $500 to walk out of the jail.
Trochesset and Tim Oberle, an ICE spokesman, said the program is not designed to keep people in detainers in the jail longer than necessary, but in at least some cases, it appears that some of the people in the jail have had court hearings canceled and moved as they attempted to find and hire immigration attorneys.
One Salvadoran man, arrested on a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge in April and held on just $4,000 bond, had his case reset five times in order to hire or contact an immigration attorney, according to court documents.
The man ultimately pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge on June 21.
Will Agnew, a defense attorney who has represented people in local courts while they’re on immigration detainers said usually the defendant’s top concern isn’t how long they spend in Galveston, but where they’re going afterward.
“Whether it’s dismissed or they go to jail, they’re going to end up in the deportation process,” Agnew said. “A little bit of jail, a month or two, or even a year in jail is nowhere near as a big a deal of pretty much being sent out of, pretty much, your country.
“They’ve got family. They’ve got jobs, they’ve got other stuff. The year or six months they would spend in jail is pretty much inconsequential based on what they’re waiting for on the other end.”
The county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE is set to expire Sunday, according to official documents posted on the federal agency’s website.
The agreement specifies the rules of the agreement. ICE pays for the training of county deputies and some of the technology they use to determine immigration status. The county is required to provide office space for ICE and cover other administrative costs.
The federal government does not cover the cost of holding people on immigration detainers or pay any part of the salaries of the immigration-trained deputies, Oberle said.
Trochesset last week said he believed the sheriff’s office had already renewed its partnership with the agency, though was not able to confirm that. The Galveston County Commissioners Court, which voted to approve the original agreement in 2017, has not taken a second vote to renew the agreement.
Oberle declined to comment on the state of the local agreement.
“Discussions with jurisdictions are occurring before the effective period expires; as those discussions are ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment,” Oberle said.
The renewal of the program has caused waves in other Texas communities. Two weeks ago, a divided Tarrant County Commissioners Court voted to extend its agreement with ICE for another year.
Before renewing the program, county commissioners there heard from some Fort Worth residents who said they worried the 287(g) led to the targeting of migrant communities and to deportations over minor infractions. Supporters said it was right for the county to enforce U.S. laws, including immigration laws.
With Galveston and other counties’ agreements set to expire, civil rights groups also have put out a call for local governments to end their agreements with the immigration agency.
“It erodes people’s trust in our police officers and makes residents reluctant to report crimes because they fear they or their family members might face deportation,” wrote Adriana Pinon, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The group also pointed to the financial costs of the program, including the costs of travel for training, personnel salaries and supplies.
“Instead of spending more taxpayer money on a federal responsibility, your county should start saving money and better protect your community,” Pinon wrote.
On Thursday, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said it was “unfortunate” that Galveston County had to spend any money at all on people in the country illegally, but that he fully supported the sheriff’s office continuing its partnership with ICE.
Henry hadn’t heard any objections to jail’s participation in the program, he said.
“Not a single one,” he said.