More than 18,000 times over the past two years, local jails across the country have failed to hand over deportable immigrants to federal authorities, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement records obtained by The Texas Tribune.
The largest number by far of what the agency calls "declined detainers" was recorded in California — more than 11,000. Only 146 were recorded in Texas, 12th among all states and representing less than 1 percent of the total, and several county jail officials maintain even that number may be too high.
Detainers are requests from federal immigration authorities for a local jail to hold non-citizen inmates subject to removal — usually booked on crimes unrelated to immigration violations — for up to 48 additional hours so federal officials can take them into custody. In late 2014, the agency began targeting requests at cases involving serious criminal offenders.
The new policy was implemented by July 2015, and more law enforcement agencies are now cooperating with the agency, said spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea, who stressed that Texas jurisdictions are among its "strongest local partners."
"ICE is committed to focusing on smart, effective immigration enforcement and makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a risk to national security or public safety," she said.
According to the records released to the Tribune, almost 60 percent of the total declined detainers came from jurisdictions in California, followed by New York, Colorado and Florida.
California adopted strict “sanctuary city” policies limiting collaboration between local law enforcement and the federal government on immigration enforcement. The issue sparked national outrage when an undocumented immigrant for whom the agency had issued a detainer — declined by San Francisco County despite his long criminal history — shot and killed innocent bystander Kate Steinle after he got out of jail in July 2015.
Some Texas cities are under pressure to adopt similar "sanctuary" policies, and Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to cut state funds from counties refusing to cooperate with federal immigration policies.
Texas officials reacted with confusion when asked about the agency's numbers for their counties.
Many said the agency’s definition of a “declined detainer” was misleading because it included circumstances beyond their control, such as cases where inmates were transferred to other jurisdictions in response to outstanding warrants or had to be released after federal authorities failed to pick them up within 48 hours. An agency official acknowledged that in jurisdictions with low numbers of declined detainers, the totals could contain minor administrative errors on either the local or federal level.
All but one of the 11 counties contacted by the Tribune were unable to provide details for the outcomes of specific cases in their jurisdictions — raising troubling questions about the exchange of information between local and federal authorities.
The number of declined detainers in Travis County — 72, including 33 with a prior criminal history on different charges — topped the Texas list.
A spokesman for Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, Roger Wade, referred all questions about the data to the federal government.
“I do not know how ICE came up with those numbers and we do not keep stats for ICE,” Wade said in an email. “You will have to ask ICE how they arrived at those numbers and what their definition is of declining detainers.”
A distant second to Travis is Bexar County, where Democrats have pushed a proposal to adopt “sanctuary city” as an official label. There, the federal agency's records show declined detainers on 11 inmates, four of whom had a prior criminal history.
James Keith, a spokesman for Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, also could not account for what happened in those 11 cases.
“We don't keep that information,” he said in an email. But he emphasized that the county cooperated with federal authorities on all detainer requests.
“If a person is no longer in the jail, whether it be because of a release or transfer, that would qualify for a detainer being denied,” he said. “In the case of a transfer, ICE would still be able to place a detainer on the inmate, they would just have to notify the agency the inmate was transferred to.”
In Collin County, north of Dallas, where agency records show two declined detainers, one for an inmate with a criminal history, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said it “would literally be too manpower-intensive and potentially impossible to locate the reasons they were released.”
Most Texas counties on the list — the majority of which had between one and three declined detainers — did not fall into any kind of pattern.
Declined detainers appeared in Texas jurisdictions known for their fiercely conservative politics, such as Williamson County, which has declined detainers on three inmates, including two with previous criminal histories. Harris County, home to the state's largest city, also had just three declined detainers.
Conversely, in counties where a higher number of declined detainers might be expected either because of their proximity to the border or local officials who vocally oppose expanding immigration powers, numbers of declined detainers were very low.
In Webb County, where the district attorney's office estimates about 25 percent of its caseload involves defendants that are either undocumented or in the country on a visa, the jail showed three declined detainers during that timeframe. But a spokeswoman for the Webb County Jail said it didn't deny those requests — the inmates were transferred to another county where they also faced charges.
The only two other border counties on the list, Hidalgo and El Paso, had one declined detainer each.
The documents released to the Tribune also included information on 165 jurisdictions nationwide that ICE determined to have a specific policy limiting cooperation with federal authorities. Dallas, where Sheriff Lupe Valdez recently drew fire from Abbott in October for what he viewed as lenient enforcement of federal immigration policy, was the only Texas county on the list. The same records reported only two declined detainers in that county.
A spokeswoman for Valdez's office said she would have to verify the information before responding to a request for comment.
When asked for further clarification on the Texas numbers, an ICE official — speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment — said that in many jurisdictions the small numbers of declined detainers might result from paperwork mistakes at the federal or local level, not from a lack of cooperation.
"We cannot determine exactly what happened in each of these instances without examining the individual cases, which would be resource-prohibitive," the official said.
Texas Tribune reporters Terri Langford, Julian Aguilar and Jolie McCullough contributed to this story.