Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau doesn’t mind handing over undocumented immigrants in her jail to the federal government. In fact, she says if the federal government wants them, it can have them — along with the bills for incarcerating the foreign-born prisoners.
So when the Bexar County jail turned up on a spreadsheet of cities and counties that have turned down “detainer” requests to hand over prisoners to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the sheriff said she knew something was amiss. Declining federal detainers is what so-called “sanctuary” cities and counties do, and Pamerleau says Bexar County is anything but.
Now, more than three months after the list was published by The Texas Tribune, Pamerleau says it may take an act of Congress — or at least of her congressman — to get to the bottom of it. Specifically, she has asked U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, to help her get some clarification from the agency. Smith declined comment Tuesday.
At issue: Pamerleau says ICE has thus far failed to identify any inmates or explain why it claims that Bexar County declined 11 detainer requests from the agency between January 2014 and September 2015. The Tribune got the list from ICE under a Freedom of Information Act request and published it on Jan. 15.
The issue of refusing to cooperate with ICE on detainer requests is a hot-button topic that raised the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has threatened to withhold state funding for sheriffs that decline detainers and wants the Legislature to pass a bill banning the practice. In San Francisco, considered a “sanctuary city,” county authorities came under intense fire for refusing to honor a detainer request for the undocumented immigrant later accused of shooting Kate Steinle to death on Pier 14, a crime that stirred heated debate in the U.S. presidential race.
In a letter to Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, obtained by the Tribune, Pamerleau said she found “no evidence” to suggest that her jail has ever refused to turn over any undocumented immigrants with detainers on them as records from the ICE claimed.
“In the case of the eleven Bexar County inmates in question, we believe they were either transferred to other facilities or jurisdictions, including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to serve prison sentences,” she wrote. “Since they were no longer here, they were listed as declined. However, without specific information from the Department of Homeland Security identifying these eleven inmates, we are unable to validate specific information about each inmate.”
In a follow-up phone call Tuesday, Pamerleau told the Tribune it’s also possible that ICE simply failed to pick up the some of inmates they wanted and are calling that a “declined” detainer.
“If we refused to hand them over or if we in some way had denied them the opportunity to pick them up, that’s a different matter. So I think it’s disingenuous that they use the term 'declined' when there are other circumstances and other reasons why someone is not handed over to ICE," Pamerleau said. "And you can use that term — disingenuous.’’
If Pamerlau's assessment is correct, it wouldn't mark the first time the federal agency has gotten blowback from a county sheriff's office over supposedly declined detainers. The data on detainers obtained by the Tribune in January showed that in Webb County, which sits across the Rio Grande from the troubled Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the sheriff's office declined three detainers during the same time frame. But a Webb County Jail spokeswoman said that was a mischaracterization and the inmates in question were transferred to Harris County, not simply released onto the streets as some might be led to believe.
An ICE spokeswoman said a "declined" request doesn't necessarily mean a local entity refused to work with the agency.
"The small numbers of declined detainers recorded in many Texas jurisdictions are likely the result of administrative errors on the side of ICE or the jurisdiction," said Adelina Pruneda, who works in the agency's San Antonio field office. Pruneda said one example of such an error is improperly filed paperwork.
But she added that determining the cause for each discrepancy isn't possible.
"We cannot determine exactly what happened in each of these instances without examining the individual cases, which would be resource-prohibitive,” she said.
ICE Director Sarah Saldaña, who grew up in Corpus Christi and served as a tough-nosed prosecutor in Dallas, has also called cities and counties in her native state among the most cooperative in the United States when it comes to honoring detainers.
But the fact that the agency is tracking "declined" detainers and won't or can't clarify for local authorities what that means has rubbed some county officials the wrong way.
In Bexar County, Pamerleau said that with about 90 outstanding detainers in her jail on any given day and an antiquated record-keeping system that relies heavily on paper forms, identifying the 11 supposedly "declined" detainers over an 18-month period is next to impossible. She added that Bexar gets less than 10 percent of the cost of incarcerating federal detainees reimbursed from the federal government.
Birdwell described the disconnect Tuesday as "just another concrete example of the lack of communication from the federal government to the local jurisdictions on these serious issues" and said there was a need for "uniformity of definitions" when it comes to detainer requests. Birdwell, chairman of a key border security subcommittee in the state Senate, said he would pursue solutions in the upcoming 2017 session of the Texas Legislature.
The issue has even riled some Democrats who oppose hardline immigration policies.
State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, questioned Pamerleau on the 11 declined detainers during a March hearing on border security. She said then her goal in pressing the sheriff wasn't to single her out as being soft on immigration. Instead, she said she wanted to show that statistics don’t always paint a complete picture.
On Tuesday, Garcia said Pamerleau’s response did not clear up the confusion, but she did not put the blame on the Bexar County Republican. Rather, Garcia said the response reflected shortcomings in how the federal agency communicates.
“I’m not sure [sheriffs] really know what’s going on in their jails,” she said. “We don’t understand how ICE characterizes things versus how sheriffs characterize things.”
But the senator added that despite the miscommunication, the statistics from ICE reflect that Texas does enforce the law.
“It’s enforcement that some of us don’t approve of, but there is enforcement,” she said. “How can you say there is no enforcement when Texas is the leader in number of detainers [honored]?”