- Sean Collins Walsh American-Statesman Staff
After an embarrassing jail escape that was blamed in part on inadequate facilities, Walker County in 2012 issued $20 million in bonds to build a new jail. It was a hefty price tag for the county of fewer than 70,000 people north of Houston, and officials pledged to search for new revenue streams to help pay for the jail.
This year, they found one: The Walker County sheriff’s office is getting into the immigration business.
“One of the things we said we were going to do when we told the taxpayers we were going to build a new jail is that we would always look for ways to make additional revenue. That is what we are doing,” Sheriff Clint McRae told the Huntsville Item this spring.
Walker County is seeking to join a small but growing group of local governments across the country that simultaneously participate in two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement programs that, when combined, create a profit incentive for local law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue unauthorized immigrants in their communities.
If so-called sanctuary cities are on one side of the spectrum when it comes to immigration enforcement, these counties are the polar opposite — an ICE spokeswoman referred to them as “an invaluable force multiplier” for federal immigration authorities.
One program, known as 287(g) for its section in federal statute, allows police and sheriff’s deputies to be trained and certified as immigration officers and gives them the authority to enforce some aspects of federal law. The other, an intergovernmental service agreement for immigrant detention, allows ICE to place suspected unauthorized immigrants in county jails for a fee.
Mary Small, policy director for the Washington-based Detention Watch Network, said the arrangement amounts to a “perverse financial incentive.”
“It allows them to control the pipeline of people into the detention facility where they’re then paid per day to detain people,” Small said.
ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said the two programs aren’t connected, and she pointed out that ICE decides how long a detainee is held in a particular county jail, not the local sheriff.
“The agreements for 287(g) cover only the enforcement program and do not extend to detention operations, nor does having a 287(g) program act as a bridge to a detention contract with ICE. The two processes are distinct and governed separately,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “There are facilities with an operational need for both programs, in which ICE has established both a 287(g) (agreement) and a detention contract; however, in all situations, ICE ultimately makes the determination of all enforcement actions, to include detention.”
The 287(g) program, she said, is “an invaluable force multiplier for ICE’s public safety mission, allowing the agency to take custody of criminal aliens.”
At least 16 counties across the country already have both, according to a list of 287(g) agreements posted on ICE’s website and a list of ICE detention facilities from April. Lubbock County in West Texas, which recently started its 287(g) program and collects $65 a day for each ICE detainee it houses, is the only Lone Star State jurisdiction among them, but three others are aiming to join.
Smith County in East Texas, which already has a detention agreement, is pursuing a 287(g), county officials have said. The ACLU of Texas reported in April that the Houston area’s Montgomery County, which already also has a detention agreement, has applied for a 287(g). And Walker County is pursuing both agreements for the first time this year, McRae has said.
ICE didn’t respond to questions about the status of those counties’ applications.
The fusing of local and federal authority in these jurisdictions goes well beyond the scenarios predicted by opponents of Senate Bill 4, the controversial new state law that seeks to ban sanctuary cities, which are jurisdictions that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement. Critics, including the top police officials from Texas’ largest cities, have argued that the law, scheduled to take effect Sept. 1, will make it harder for local law enforcement to gain the trust of immigrant communities they police.
With the Trump administration cracking down on illegal immigration and calling for a 70 percent expansion of the 287(g) program in its budget proposal, advocates fear that more counties will seek to combine the two programs.
Rodriguez said there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in enrollment in the 287(g) program since February. ICE, she said, is “currently accepting applications and reviewing them on a rolling basis.”
Federal duties, local officers
Created by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the 287(g) program allows ICE to delegate federal authority to local officers who complete a four-week training course in South Carolina.
While the law allows ICE to sign 287(g) agreements delegating the authority to arrest people on immigration charges in the field, the Obama administration in 2012 limited the program to jailhouse enforcement, in which sheriff’s office employees are trained to identify unauthorized immigrants who have already been arrested on other charges.
“The 287(g) jail enforcement model operates solely within the confines of a jail, meaning that an alien must first be arrested by local law enforcement on other criminal charges and brought to the facility before any 287(g) screening activity takes place,” ICE spokeswoman Rodriguez said.
Recent agreements approved by ICE, including those in Lubbock and Smith counties, have been limited to the jailhouse model.
While not all 287(g) agreements allow local officers to make immigration arrests in the field, Small said departments can bring in more immigrants by targeting their communities or more aggressively pursuing minor charges for those suspected of being unauthorized.
Officials who enter their jurisdictions into the sometimes costly 287(g) program have been criticized for taking on a federal responsibility at the expense of local taxpayers. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, for example, cited cost as one of the reasons he ended his office’s agreement this year, noting that the 10 deputies who worked on the program had combined annual salaries of $675,000.
Allowing county jails to then make money through a detention agreement is ICE’s way of sweetening the deal for enrolling in 287(g), Small said. The Walker County sheriff’s comments, she said, are the first time she’s heard a local official “explicitly linking the two and saying that they’re planning to use one to make the other worthwhile.”
Walker County currently houses some inmates from Hays County to alleviate overcrowding in the jail in San Marcos. Hays County pays $37 per inmate per day for the service. McRae told the Huntsville Item that he thinks the county will do better with ICE.
“The federal government tends to pay a little more for services than other counties,” he said.
McRae didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.
Lubbock County Sheriff Kelly Rowe, who recently had two jail employees return from the training and plans to send more, said that it’s unfair to characterize 287(g) as a moneymaking operation based on rounding up immigrants.
“These conversations get a little frustrating with 287(g) having something to do with doing work site raids or plucking family members out of their homes,” he said. “We ultimately catch a lot of guys in that net (of checking inmates’ immigration status), but that’s not because we’re out there looking for immigration. We’re out there looking for the hundreds of pounds of narcotics that’s entering our community weekly.”
ICE approached Lubbock County about enrolling in the program in the summer of 2016, Rowe said. Lubbock County’s detention agreement goes back years, and county officials didn’t intend to benefit from enrolling in both programs simultaneously, he said.