Plan to check status of inmates on hold

October 29, 2008 4:36:53 PM PDT
Violent crime linked to illegal immigration; Eyewitness News has learned that a plan to check the status of inmates in the Harris County Jail is now on hold. That plan was designed to keep dangerous illegal immigrants in jail and then deport them out of the U.S. 13 Undercover first exposed the huge number of illegal immigrants accused of committing crimes back in November of last year. Many of them should have been deported. But instead, they were released back on the streets of Houston.

Since we first told you about this, the Harris County Sheriff's Department implemented a program to check for the legal status of these criminals. Now, there's a question of whether the sheriff's office had permission to do so.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett signed the contract but said it was subject to commissioners court approval. Commissioners never signed off on it because the vote was postponed. But that didn't stop the Harris County Sheriff's Office from moving forward.

Back in July, Harris County commissioners OK'd a plan to send nine jailers with the sheriff's office to South Carolina for special immigration training. While the training and the expenses related to it were approved, local jailers began performing those duties a month later, even though permission to start the program was never granted by commissioners.

Captain John Martin with the Harris County Sheriff's Office says the intention was never to circumvent the courts' approval.

"There was an oversight on our part as far as implementing that program, but we felt like we were making significant progress with regards to that program," he said.

The court never approved the actual implementation of the program because Commissioner Sylvia Garcia asked to hold the item, which never appeared on another agenda. Commissioner Steve Radack calls the suspension a minor setback and says he supports the program.

"At any rate, I think what it boils down to is this program is really for the protection of the public," he said. "There are a lot of questions asked in the jail."

For the time being, local jailers will no longer be allowed to issue immigration detainers or question anyone believed to be in this country illegally. They will instead have to notify federal immigration authorities upon release.

13 Undercover was the first to expose the huge number of illegal immigrants who were released back onto the streets of Houston when they should have been deported. Some worry that history may repeat itself.

"Hopefully nothing happens between now and a week from when they presumably vote, presumably approving this measure," said crime victims' advocate Andy Kahan. "But we all know we've seen cases like this that fall though the glitch."

Commissioner Garcia, who asked to delay the vote says it is outrageous that the sheriff would choose to implement a contract that has not been approved by commissioners court as required by state law.

The sheriff's office plans to put the item on the agenda for Tuesday's court meeting. Meantime, we spoke with federal immigration authorities, who tell us their work at the county jail will continue.

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