Houston, We Have a Problem

By Jessica M. Vaughan on November 19, 2008

This week the Houston Chronicle published an extensive three-part series reporting on the disturbing number (thousands) of illegal aliens who commit crimes and are processed through the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, but manage to avoid removal and often remain in the community to progress in their criminal career. The series does a service by pointing out the issues involved in dealing with the hundreds of thousands of criminal aliens living in this country. But it gives the misleading impression that local law enforcement agencies are helpless, with no recourse but to sit and wait for ICE to take all these bad people off their hands.

The lead sentence of the first article reads:

Federal immigration officials allowed scores of violent criminals . . . to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates’ admission to local authorities that they were in the country illegally….

The next paragraph says:

ICE officials didn’t file the paperwork to detain roughly 75% of the more than 3,500 inmates who told jailers during the booking process that they were in the U.S. illegally.

Now, everyone knows that ICE doesn’t have the manpower or money to do the job it would like to do and remove a larger share of the 11.5 million illegal aliens, including 300-450,000 criminal aliens. And I hear lots of complaints from sheriffs and police chiefs about ICE’s responsiveness in some local areas (“Tell me what I have to do to get them to come for the felons at least,” one mid-western state sheriff pleaded with me at a recent seminar).

But the report does not explore sufficiently how ICE is supposed to find out about all these criminal aliens in the first place, so that it can launch the removal process (if it chooses). Instead it quotes several local law enforcement officers and judges who lamely complain they have no way of determining an offender’s status or, more appallingly, state that it’s not their concern.

Until the Harris County Sheriff’s Office joined ICE’s 287(g) program (a do-it-yourself deportation program – see the ICE website and this Center backgrounder) local LEAs were making little effort even to meet ICE halfway on this problem. Two years ago, after a previously deported felon killed a Houston police officer, the Sheriff’s Office did start asking inmates about their status. They kept the information in a database and shared it with ICE. But the officers were not trained in how to determine immigration status. It appears that the accuracy of those records is questionable. ICE did remove 900 of the 3,500 self-described illegal aliens in the database; but over the same period ICE also put detainers on another 2,500 aliens it found on its own, who were not in the database. One problem is that some illegal aliens will not volunteer that they are illegal, or may give an alias. (Note: basic training for LEOs on immigration law and status determination is available in the private sector.)

Complicating matters for ICE, the city of Houston, the largest jurisdiction in the county, is doing about as much as it can to avoid turning over illegal aliens. It only reports to ICE only those illegal aliens already with warrants out for them, obviously a small share of the illegals they encounter. It accepts the matricula consular as identification (even though the state’s homeland security director, Steve McCraw, was one of the more forceful and credible opponents of such a policy when he was a senior FBI official). Sanctuary policies make it difficult to fight transnational crime effectively, as was pointed out in our recent study of immigrant gangs.

One of the Chronicle stories focused on the probation policies of the Harris County. Incredibly, many suspected illegal aliens who had committed serious crimes (such as sexual assault on an 11-year-old) were being offered probation instead of time in jail. The cop-killer mentioned above was in this category. Probation officials quoted in the article lamented that they had no way to determine status of offenders, but would provide ICE with a list of those people who admitted to being illegal “whenever ICE requests it.” Now that’s a pro-active policy if I ever heard one. I guess ICE isn’t listed in the phone book in Texas (to be fair, I have heard from P&P officers in other states that some local ICE offices sometimes seem uninterested in removing parolees, but there’s still the Law Enforcement Support Center if local ICE doesn't come, which is staffed 24/7 with ICE agents who can help with those questions). According to a survey of Texas probation departments reported in the article, although 93% of the departments reported having illegal alien probationers, only 18.5% had policies to report them to ICE, and only 18% said they had a formal relationship with ICE.

The important point is that there is no excuse for this kind of attitude anymore. There are a number of options available for Harris County, and every state or local law enforcement agency, to increase the number of criminal aliens who are removed from their community. There are plenty of examples of how these steps have contributed greatly to public safety in a number of jurisdictions around the country (check out Prince William County, Virginia; Maricopa County, Arizona; Collier County, Florida; Cobb County, Georgia; Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; and the whole state of Rhode Island, just for starters).

As it turns out, Harris County had already started some of these months ago, so it’s not clear why the Chronicle bothered to run the story at this point, since things have already changed. The county has been piloting one of ICE’s most promising new programs, which automates the status checking process at the jails, putting them at the cutting edge of initiatives to deal with criminal aliens. It’s called the Interoperability Project. More can be done, of course, starting with a no-bail-for-illegals policy, using the LESC, and a basic training program, so everyone in local law enforcement – cops, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, P&P, etc. -- can learn how to use the tools ICE makes available. And if ICE isn’t able to help fast enough or often enough, there is always 287(g).