Sheriff Salazar's Head-in-the-Sand Approach to the Changing Landscape of Immigration Enforcement

click to enlarge Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar - BCSO
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar
It seemed to start in early February, less than a month after President Donald Trump's swearing in. Among the first anxiety-inducing headlines: a longtime Phoenix resident and 36-year-old mother of U.S. citizen kids was arrested and deported after showing up for a routine case review with federal officials.

Then came the immigration raids, followed by news that the kind of young undocumented immigrant once covered by an Obama-era deportation deferral program, known as DACA, could now easily get swept up into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Then there was news that ICE would go so far as to track down and arrest an undocumented victim of domestic violence trying to file for a protective order at their local county courthouse.

The examples sent a crystal-clear message to an immigrant community anxiously preparing for the crackdown Trump promised on the campaign trail: That almost every undocumented immigrant is fair game for detention and deportation now.

Soon enough, the issue landed squarely at the feet of Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. On Valentine's Day, Josue Romero, a 19-year-old undocumented art student and DACA recipient, was hit with a misdemeanor marijuana charge and booked into Salazar's jail. Two days later, jailers handed Romero over to ICE agents, who tossed him in a van headed to a prison-like immigrant detention center in Pearsall. After intense public pressure, including last-minute intervention from a congressman, ICE, without explanation, turned the van around and dropped Romero off in a San Antonio parking lot, where he had a tearful, on-camera reunion with his father.

Activists and lawyers working with Romero say that under Obama's ICE, he likely wouldn't have been a priority. That's because, after detaining and removing a record number of immigrants (earning him the title "deporter-in-chief"), Obama urged "prosecutorial discretion" so ICE could focus on targeting violent, dangerous criminals for deportation — not teenagers like Romero, whose family fled gang violence in Honduras when he was 3-years-old.

Murderers not mothers, or so the line went. Felons not families. Gang members not grandmas.

But under Trump, people like Romero have apparently also become priorities. Immigration lawyers say that under Trump's executive orders on the matter, pretty much every undocumented person is. Under Obama, people like Romero could breathe easy so long as they hadn't been convicted of "a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, or multiple misdemeanor offenses." Under Trump, he was nearly deported because he was merely accused of a crime so petty that prosecutors in the state's largest city won't even bother with it anymore.

Simply put, the rules of the game have changed — which is why thousands of people have called on Sheriff Salazar to change his department's working relationship with ICE. While he's largely stayed mum on the issue (his office has denied several of our requests to interview him on the matter in recent weeks, including a request on Tuesday), last week, he finally spoke up in an attempt to quell any lingering fear in the community he's tasked with policing.

“I want to bring the mood down a bit, and there’s really nothing new going on,” Salazar told the Express-News, saying he'd maintain the status quo established under his predecessor at the jail. Yes, the jail would continue to honor routine, warrant-less ICE requests to detain immigrants and hand them over to the feds — even if their charges have been dismissed or are minor and non-violent in nature. No, he wouldn't willingly go any further and adopt a federal program his predecessors also rejected, which would deputize local jail guards as immigration agents. He also sent a sharply-worded letter to the governor, who has required county jails certify that they comply with ICE requests.

"This is just more of the same," Salazar assured the community, while announcing a new "Community Outreach Program for Spanish-Speaking Residents" that kicks-off Thursday. "We haven’t changed our policies and procedures," he told the daily. "To my knowledge, ICE is not doing anything above and beyond."

Which, if you believe immigration attorneys handling these types of cases, isn't entirely true.

Denise Gilman, who directs the University of Texas's immigration law clinic, says the scale of ICE's enforcement actions might not be dramatically different right now — after all, the agency is still constrained by whatever resources are available until it can, as promised by Trump, hire thousands of new agents and expand the country's immigrant detention centers, many of which are clustered in South Texas.

But Gilman says what ICE is doing now stands in stark contrast to enforcement under the last couple years of the Obama Administration. It's not just the kind of people being swept up in raids — DACA recipients, victims trying to report domestic violence, mothers of U.S. citizen kids with no violent criminal history — but also the tone of recent enforcement actions. Gilman says she's received what she calls "credible reports of ICE agents hanging out near taco stands, standing outside high schools ... not going inside, but as a show of force." (ICE, meanwhile, has called rumors of checkpoints and random immigration sweeps “false, dangerous and irresponsible.”)

While Gilman admits there's a certain "trickiness" to describe what's really going on with immigration enforcement, she argues that that appears to be intentional. "What is happening is clearly designed to intimidate, I have no doubt about that," she told the Current this week. "Even if some of the reports have been more alarmist than what has actually been borne out in the facts, they’re not coming out of thin air ... They’re coming from actual actions that are meant to intimidate and that are different from what we're used to seeing." New York public radio station WNYC called it "smoke and handcuffs."

That makes how local law enforcement will or won't interact with ICE all the more important, particularly for agencies that police immigrant-heavy communities, says Erica Schommer, a St. Mary's University professor who represents immigrants and refugees with the school's immigration and human rights clinic. In recent years, undocumented people who had some type of application for legal status in the works, or who qualified for deportation deferral or weren’t an ICE priority, started to feel more comfortable coming out of the shadows.

Not anymore, Schommer says. “It’s kind of hard to tell your clients, ‘Oh, you’re being ridiculous, nothing’s going to happen to you,’ because I don’t know. I can’t guarantee that. Nobody can anymore.”

As for Salazar's recent line that nothing has really changed as far as ICE enforcement, this was Schommer's reaction: “It is disconcerting to have a sheriff saying we’re just going to go about what we’ve always been doing, when by all accounts ICE is changing the rules of the game. It does not really address the concerns that the community has."

For anyone interested in attending Salazar's community outreach session on Thursday, here's the information his office sent us:

New Community Outreach Program for Spanish-Speaking Residents

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is kicking off a new community outreach program for Spanish-speaking residents. We invite the public to attend a kickoff meeting with Sheriff Javier Salazar to learn more about the agency and numerous other topics, such as crime prevention and how to work with law enforcement agencies.

BCSO is partnering with the Texas-based organization UNIDOS to provide community education and assistance to the local Hispanic community. (UNIDOS was formed with the goal of providing an opportunity for police agencies to partner with Spanish-speaking residents and serve as a resource for creating an improved quality of life for the entire community.)

WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 2, 2017
WHERE: St. Timothy Catholic Church, 1515 Saltillo Street, San Antonio, Texas 78207

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