HOUSTON (KTRK) --Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said he will renew the county's contract with the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement's 287g program, which utilizes local law officers to identify -- for deportation proceedings -- suspected criminals in the country illegally.
"Come June 30th, we will have signed the agreement to renew for another three years," Hickman said in an exclusive interview with abc13. "People who have committed a crime in Texas who are here illegally or are undocumented, they should be removed."
The program deputizes Harris County jailers to put arrestees through the U.S. government's immigration databases looking for anyone who may be in the country illegally.
It only checks people as they are booked into jail, Hickman said. Those who may be stopped for by sheriff's deputies at other times, such as at traffic stops or at crime scenes, are not run through the database, according to Hickman.
Hickman also added that crime victims are not asked about status.
Hickman's decision also comes as Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter dated Wednesday to the Harris County Sheriff's Office urging him to renew the program.
But the program has long drawn protests, with activists wanting jailers to toss the program.
Indeed, over the past year, protesters have marched on the Harris County Jail and demanded answers at Harris County Commissioners Court for months.
Mary Moreno with the Texas Organizing Project told abc13 the group's opposition is about more than just the jail program.
"We're concerned just with the rate of deportations," Moreno said. "This is one cog in the deportation machine."
The federal government launched the 287g program in 1996 and Harris County is one of 32 law enforcement agencies to participate in the program. Sheriff's departments across the nation, including various Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Arizona and California counties, participate. Protests have almost always followed when sheriffs and county officials across the U.S. have signed on to the program.
In Harris County, approval of the program has been a bipartisan affair. Hickman is a Republican and his predecessor, Democrat Adrian Garcia, also supported the program.
Hickman has argued that the program leads to fewer deportations than protesters claim.
Last year 120,129 people were booked into the Harris County Jail, according to the sheriff's department.
- 3,486 were flagged by 287g deputies for possible immigration violations.
- 1,831 (52 percent) had holds placed on them by ICE for possible immediate or future deportation.
- 167 of those were deported from Harris County. The rest are in immigration proceedings or serving prison sentences.
- 1,655 (48 percent) were not detained by ICE at all despite being flagged by the system.
"That's our federal guidelines at the moment," Hickman told abc13 when asked why nearly half those flagged were not sent forward for immigration proceedings. "The process does work, but it's designed to only remove the worst of the worst."
ICE statistics show 23 percent of the 287g related deportations were for DWI, 20 percent for assault -- including family violence -- and 12 percent for drug possession. The stats do not show deportations for re-entry violations, but that would also flag an arrestee for possible deportation.
Moreno is concerned that it creates a confusing situation for undocumented Harris County residents who need police help. No local police agency checks immigration status at crime scenes, but Moreno points out, "When the police come the first thing they usually do is ask for ID," she said. "That starts another chain of events."
Moreno also said that her group and supporters of the Texas Organizing Project will go to the polls in November to make their voices heard.
"We can be very involved in the election," she said. "To us, it's all about who you elect. We have the sheriff coming up for election and we can be in a position to elect a new sheriff."