© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How 1 Texas Sheriff Is Partnering With ICE On The Issue Of Undocumented Immigrants

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: I'm John Burnett in Edna, Texas. The Coastal Bend of Texas is a world away from San Francisco. Here, you find the biggest cluster of counties in the nation that have partnered with ICE. Twelve sheriffs have agreed to help the federal government enforce immigration laws by turning over undocumented immigrants they happen to arrest. The first was Jackson County where Andy Louderback is sheriff.

ANDY LOUDERBACK: If they're driving around this county intoxicated, if they're stealing from people, if they're committing crimes from folks, we want them removed from this country. We don't want them here.

BURNETT: About three quarters of the nation's 3,000 counties cooperate with ICE, according to a recent survey by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. ICE asks the jails to hold undocumented people, so agents can come and pick them up and put them into deportation proceedings. Jackson County is one of a few dozen law enforcement agencies in the country that have gone even farther. They send jailers to a monthlong ICE academy where they learn how to identify prisoners who are in the country illegally. Then ICE gives the county a dedicated computer to send the detainee's personal information directly to the agency. Tara Timberlake is a supervising jailer in Jackson County.

TARA TIMBERLAKE: You just talk to them. Just like ask them their name, where they're from and if they've come over to the United States legally or illegally.

BURNETT: Louderback even set aside a room in the jail.

LOUDERBACK: This is what we refer to as the ICE booking station.

BURNETT: The popular sheriff, in a white cowboy hat and pressed jeans, is in his fourth term. His rural county is located on the Gulf Coast, midway between Houston and Corpus Christi. Louderback says he and the other coastal sheriffs in Texas signed up for the ICE program - it's called 287(g) - to crack down on immigrant crime. The U.S. highway their counties straddle is a pipeline for smuggling drugs and humans up from Mexico. He figures, at any one time, he's holding five unauthorized immigrants in his jail until they can be picked up by ICE. Yet most are not accused of being cartel operatives. They're young men like Pablo Garcia.

PABLO GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Garcia is a 21-year-old undocumented housepainter from Mexico. He's dressed in black-and-white jail stripes with a sallow jailhouse complexion. I was trying to stay in the shadows, just working and going home, he says. The cops came to his house in the county seat of Edna looking for someone else. But he says they ended up arresting him for possessing a small bag of cocaine.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Because Garcia was holding less than a gram of cocaine, he will likely get probation. But he's almost certain to be deported. ICE statistics show that most of the immigrants it takes into custody from local jails are there for crimes like DUI, assault and drug possession - not the grave crimes the Trump administration highlights like homicide and rape. I asked the sheriff if he considers Garcia a dangerous criminal.

Would he be a threat to public security if he were released back on the streets?

LOUDERBACK: You know, he was picked up for the possession of a controlled substance. I mean, there's plenty of evidence about the violence associated with the drug trade. Whether he particularly is a potential threat, we can't really answer that, can we?

BURNETT: For Andy Louderback and the hundreds of sheriffs across the land who cooperate with ICE, the severity of the offense is irrelevant.

LOUDERBACK: If you're here illegally, and you're not a citizen, that's crime one. And now you're here in this community, and you commit another crime here.

BURNETT: Sheriff Louderback stresses that he's not interested in rounding up all the undocumented workers in Jackson County - he estimates there are about 1,000. He says he's only interested in the ones who end up in his jail. John Burnett, NPR News, Edna, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLITHE FIELD'S "IN THE MOONLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.