Mayor Annise Parker has shelved a campaign promise to use a controversial federal program to screen for illegal immigrants in local jails, saying the city has not yet decided to fund the initiative amid a tight budget year.
Instead, she said, the city is focused on a less costly program that automatically checks the immigration history of all suspects booked into the city’s jails. That program, dubbed Secure Communities, was launched by the former mayor and has been up and running since December.
Parker said on the campaign trail that she favored having the city participate in both Immigration and Customs Enforcement programs, and pledged to dedicate city funds if necessary. But so far her administration has not taken any steps toward signing up for 287(g), which trains jailers to act as immigration agents. Former Police Chief Harold Hurtt estimated that having the city participate in that program would cost as much as $2 million annually.
“I still believe it’s possible to use both, but we have to identify the money to use 287(g),” Parker said. “I still support the program, and I think we should use it, but it’s a matter of getting to the point where we can implement it.”
In the first two months since the city started using Secure Communities on Dec. 16, ICE officials filed paperwork to detain 195 suspects identified through the automated fingerprint check system. That’s more than the 169 ICE detained in the city jails all of last year, said Assistant Chief Dan Perales.
Numbers ‘to go up’
The program automatically checks everyone booked into jail for an immigration history but leaves the determination about whether the suspect should be detained up to ICE officials. ICE spokesman Greg Palmore said on Tuesday he was unable to provide the number of suspects identified as potentially eligible for deportation through the program but not detained by ICE.
Parker said she was not surprised the number of detentions of suspected illegal immigrants has increased through the new system.
“We’re going to monitor it to make sure it’s working as effectively as it should, but I absolutely expect the numbers to go up,” Parker said. “The whole purpose of linking to the program was to identify suspected illegal immigrants coming through our criminal justice system that had not been identified in the past. Clearly, we’re doing that.”
The controversy over the two ICE programs dogged former Mayor Bill White, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
White had proposed last spring having the city participate in 287(g) after a Houston police officer was shot and critically injured by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.
But after months of failed negotiations with ICE and backlash from the city’s immigrant communities, White opted instead to have the city participate in Secure Communities, which is far less controversial than 287(g) among immigrant advocates.
One leader in the immigrant community was happy to hear that the city was not actively pursuing participation in 287(g).
“This is what we have been fighting for,” said Maria Jimenez, a longtime Houston immigrant advocate. “But unfortunately they based the decision on the wrong reasons, because of budget shortfalls. For us, the main reason continues to be public safety and the trust that there should be between the police and the communities that they serve.”
Price of safety
Curtis Collier, president of Spring-based U.S. Border Watch, an anti-illegal immigration organization that has supported the city’s participation in 287(g), said he was dismayed by the mayor’s decision, calling it an example of “election-year politicking.”
“I know it costs money,” Collier said. “And I’m sure she’s concerned about the budget. But how can you put a price on the safety of Houstonians?”
Parker noted that in the long-term the city may be able to turn over its booking operations to Harris County if the two sides or voters approve funding for a new detention facility. The county uses both screening programs in its jails. Beyond those discussions, any implementation of 287(g) in city jails is not imminent, she said.