In a slight deviation from what’s been common at the Texas Capitol this year, a Democratic senator pressed a Republican sheriff Wednesday on why her jail has released undocumented immigrants from custody.
Usually the Democrats play defense, but during a subcommittee hearing on border security, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, noted that Republican Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau’s jail has declined 11 requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates for possible deportation.
Citing a January Texas Tribune story, Garcia noted that Bexar County’s figure is a distant second to Travis County’s 72 in the number of detainers that weren’t honored, according to the data received. But Bexar’s number is higher than the figures for more than 30 other jails in Texas.
"Without getting into specifics on factual cases, just give me a couple of scenarios on when you would decline a detainer,” Garcia asked. “Maybe just a couple of examples.”
Pamerleau said she couldn’t comment on the number because she didn’t have the information in front of her.
“I don’t have the specifics on that,” she said.
Garcia, a progressive Democrat who opposes stricter state-based immigration enforcement, appeared to want to make two main points. One was to note that Bexar’s jail, run by a Republican, had let more inmates out than the Dallas County Jail, whose sheriff, Democrat Lupe Valdez, caused a statewide controversy last year when she said she would limit her cooperation with ICE.
But Garcia said she also wanted to drive the point home that the figures don’t always paint a complete picture.
“If we’re really going to look at both sides of the issue we need to look at all of it,” she said as she was leaving the Capitol. “I think the numbers are probably skewed, I think there is a lot of reason, probably something administrative why they do that. But if they are declining them I think it’s important for us to know why. I personally don’t believe anybody would decline just because they want to.”
Pamerleau declined to comment on the 11-inmate figure outside of the hearing room but did say that her department was behind technologically and upgrades could help streamline some issues in her jail.
“For Bexar County in particular, we’re still operating in what I call the '80s," she said. “We’ve got the resources to now bring the agency in terms of technology, into the 21st century.”
The exchange between Pamerleau and Garcia came after the sheriff testified that the federal government’s Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, has likely led to more criminal aliens being released.
Under PEP, which launched in November 2014, ICE determines whether an undocumented immigrant held in a county jail should be turned over to its custody for possible deportation. It is designed to use ICE’s limited resources to ferret out repeat offenders or what government officials have called “the worst of the worst.”
It replaced an earlier program, Secure Communities, which defined deportable immigrants in broader terms and was often criticized for targeting non-violent undocumented immigrants.
“The bottom line for us is that significantly fewer individuals are being detained today than just two years ago,” she said.
Pamerleau said that overall jail population dropped 10 percent from 2013 to 2015. But she said detainers dropped by 50 percent and cited what she called a “snapshot” of her jail’s population on Monday to put the new policy in perspective
On Monday we had 90 individuals that were on ICE detainers,” she said. “Fifty two percent of them had had previous serious criminal activity.”
During the hearing state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said that detainers are not honored because local jurisdictions might have policies that prevent them from enforcing immigration laws, referring to the controversial sanctuary city designation that’s drawn the ire of several Republicans.
“There may be a reason a detainer is not acted upon but it’s because there is some other legal action not simply willfully neglect of the sheriff,” he said.
Jackson County Sheriff Andy A.J. Louderback, the former president of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas, agreed with Pamerleau and said the PEP was hamstringing law enforcement. He said the committee only touched on a small portion of what’s wrong with the new system.
“Here’s what Texas sheriffs are concerned about: People are entering the country illegally and they are committing crimes. They are being deported or not being deported. They might be a priority or they might not be,” he said. “What was discussed in there today was only a small sample of exactly how many [criminal] charges are not going to be a priority. So if you want to drill down deeper, there are a lot of ways a person can commit a crime … and not become a priority.”