U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought to screen Bexar County Jail visitors

While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have repeatedly said in recent years their aim is to root out and deport criminal aliens above all others, a local ICE official fired off an email in March to the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department asking for help setting up a “pilot program” to target undocumented immigrants coming to visit family and friends in Bexar County Jail.

Unlike ICE’s current operations at the jail, in which agents can screen and check inmates already detained and booked by law enforcement, the new operation would have snagged jail visitors. It was a request Bexar County quickly turned down, said Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz.

In emails obtained by the Current through an open-records request, the ICE official wrote that he and other agents had begun noticing visitors with “non U.S. government issued or foreign ID cards” passing through the jail’s visitors area, and said, “With the approval of your office we would like to interview and possibly take into custody such individuals that are entering and attempting to visit inmates in the Visitor/Lobby area of the Bexar County Jail/Annex.”

In an interview last week, Sheriff Ortiz said his office rebuffed ICE’s proposal because he was “afraid this could lead to profiling.” Ortiz likened the proposal from ICE to “setting up at the post office and checking the citizenship of people coming in.”

ICE was hoping to set up teams of two to four agents behind the desk in the jail’s lobby, where jail staffers already check the IDs of anyone entering to visit inmates. The plan, the emails state, would be for the agents to sit alongside Bexar County staff and keep an eye on the logbook, picking out and running immigration checks as deemed necessary.

“Once reasonable suspicion has been substantiated, we can attempt to interview further in the back of the Visitor area discretely,” the ICE official wrote, saying agents could issue visitors a notice to appear in immigration court or, if necessary, detain them on the spot.

“I think it would put a chill over anyone that would want to come in and visit if there are federal agents set up checking their identification,” Ortiz remarked. “We have well-known attorneys coming through there, judges coming through there. Are we going to check their [citizenship] too?”

The case highlights conflicts between what top ICE officials say and the actions of agents at the ground level, said Lee J. Teran, a St. Mary’s University law school professor and director of the school’s immigration and human rights clinic.

“At the top level, you see ICE saying it’s not really interested in going after these kinds of people, when, in fact, at the lower levels, that’s exactly what they’re doing — just trying to round up and arrest as many people as they can.” ICE’s proposed plan for the Bexar County Jail flies in the face of its stated priorities, she remarked. “The fact that they’re even spending time organizing this, I think, is pretty outrageous, given what they’ve said their goals are.”

ICE officials responded to repeated requests for comment late Tuesday, but failed to address any of the Current’s questions. The case also underlines disagreements between ICE and local law enforcement as ICE moves to up its local presence.

While Bexar County has willingly implemented Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing program designed to flag undocumented criminals booked in jail, the City of San Antonio hasn’t. SAPD Police Chief Bill McManus has expressed his deep unease with the program, saying it has begun to blur the line between public safety and immigration enforcement to the detriment of local policing.

According to ICE’s figures, since the program was implemented in Bexar County nearly 400 of the 1,725 taken into custody under Secure Communities had no criminal history, while 166 of the 1,147 immigrants deported had no criminal history. Despite this, some state lawmakers this session have pushed a measure that would mandate that every local law enforcement agency implement the program.

Still, ICE’s presence at the city-run Magistrate Court Detention Center predates Secure Communities, city emails show, where agents have patrolled for roughly three years looking for arrestees who may be subject to deportation.

While ICE’s operations at the detention center are meant to round up hardened criminals arrested for serious crimes who are eligible for deportation, what seems to have made the city squirm, according to the emails, is how those patrols have begun to snag immigrants whose offenses amount to nothing more than minor municipal warrants or unpaid traffic fines.

When city detention center staffers stopped holding immigrants with minor municipal charges for ICE, ICE got testy. An ICE agent emailed city staff in late June 2010, complaining the city failed to hold some inmates for ICE for even 20 to 30 minutes before releasing them.

However, even then, ICE was on the job. When the city released one undocumented immigrant from the Municipal Court Detention Center after she paid her outstanding traffic fines, ICE tracked her down without city help.

“Luckily,” the agent wrote, “ICE agents were able to locate her walking down the street six blocks away.” 


Staff Writer Michael Barajas’ column Migrant Nation appears in the Current monthly.

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