HOUSTON | While Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix gets all the media attention for his crackdown on illegal immigrants, eight deputies in an unremarkable office at the Harris County Jail are posting similar numbers for deportation — and doing so without controversy.
Working two per shift, the deputies refer roughly 1,000 suspected illegal immigrants to federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities every month, helping to make the Southern District of Texas by far the busiest in the nation for illegal-immigration prosecutions.
Since joining a federal program in August 2008 that trains local law authorities to enforce immigration law, the sheriff’s office has turned up high-level gang members, a suspect wanted for murder in Mexico, and illegal immigrants from countries around the world, Lt. Michael Lindsay said.
Harris County frequently refers more cases in a given month than any other local police agency in the program, he said.
But what makes the Harris County program stand apart is a routine that insulates it from the accusations of profiling that have drawn prominent criticism to programs like that run by Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Unlike in Maricopa County, Harris County authorities do not run street sweeps in search of illegal immigrants. But they do question everybody booked into the jail about their immigration status.
“We ask everybody, right off the bat, ‘Are you legally in the country?’ ” said Lt. Lindsay, who oversees the team that conducts the questioning. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from. It doesn’t matter your religion. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. We make everybody go through it.”
Fingerprints from all inmates accused of felonies or serious misdemeanors are forwarded automatically to ICE’s data center, which can identify matches to prints from immigrants who have had prior dealings with law enforcement.
Jail officers specially trained to determine immigration status can question and check the fingerprints of anyone suspected of a lesser crime.
Those who are still suspected of illegal immigration are referred to ICE agents working on site who can ask the county to turn over inmates to the agency upon their release from jail.
Referrals that ICE pursues are prosecuted in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. According to a Syracuse University study based on federal records, the Houston-based court handled nearly 23,000 immigration prosecutions in the first nine months of fiscal 2009 - by far the most of any district court in the country and a projected increase of 22 percent over last year.
The sheriff’s office was the first in the country to use the Secure Communities program, which gives local law enforcement access to immigration databases. A news conference with Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is scheduled for Thursday to mark that program’s first year.
Despite the even-handed approach, Harris County’s program has its critics, some of whom testified to the Harris County Commission before the program was renewed last month. They argued that it too often targets perpetrators of petty misdemeanors, causing undue hardship on families and discouraging immigrants from reporting crimes.
“I see this every day,” said Silvia Mintz, an immigration lawyer speaking for the immigrant rights group Pastors in Action. Ms. Mintz said the policy looks good on paper, but in practice “they can decide to arrest you if you don’t have a driver’s license, if you have a taillight not working.”
But the sheriff’s office maintains that its approach provides an important law enforcement tool. The jail inmates “would not come to our attention if they had not broken the law or been accused of breaking the law,” Lt. Lindsay said.
Sheriff’s officials said only 7 percent of the inmates referred to ICE were arrested on suspicion of low-level misdemeanors, and officers emphasized that federal officials determine which cases go on to deportation hearings.
“They are prioritized, and our resources are going to be used or directed at those level-one cases,” ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said.
He said he did not have an estimate of how many deportation cases arise from misdemeanors. “As our resources permit, we will take into custody those lower-level criminals,” he said.
Programs like the one in Harris County are based on a section 287(g) of a 1996 law that sought to enlist local police to help identify illegal immigrants suspected of major crimes like murder or drug smuggling.
Each department negotiated its agreement with the federal government separately, and the program drew criticism from Hispanic groups when police in some areas used it to question and arrest immigrants for minor infractions.
In January, congressional researchers at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that many of the agreements didn’t outline ICE’s role in overseeing the program or how it should be used. At least four of the 29 agencies reviewed by GAO had used 287(g) authority in cases such as speeding tickets.
Many Hispanic and immigrant groups urged the Obama administration to end the program. Instead, ICE renegotiated its agreement with local police departments, emphasizing major crimes, increasing oversight and requiring compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws. If all the new agreements are signed, the program will expand to include 67 local law enforcement agencies.
Six agencies withdrew, and the Houston Police Department decided not to participate. Instead, the city is considering a program called Secure Communities, also used by Harris County. It gives police access to ICE databases to help identify foreign-born criminals and work with ICE, but it does not give officers the authority to enforce immigration laws.
The decision not to use 287(g) for patrol officers by both of Houston’s biggest police departments stands in contrast to agencies using the program that have drawn the most attention, most notably Phoenix.
There, Sheriff Arpaio has elicited protests and lawsuits for sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods that resulted in immigration referrals for scores of people arrested on misdemeanor charges. His department has referred about 34,000 illegal-immigration cases to ICE in the past three years, a number comparable to the Harris County Jail’s figure of 1,000 per month.
Sheriff Garcia, who describes himself as the “proud product of an immigrant family,” supports 287(g) but argues its application outside the jail would make Houston’s sizable immigrant population fearful of police and reluctant to report crimes.
“Immigration enforcement in the field would undermine the enforcement of Texas law,” he said at the commissioners meeting.
Before the hearing to extend the jail’s agreement with ICE, a handful of demonstrators for and against the program shouted slogans across the street from the county offices.
In the packed Commissioners Court room, 287(g) supporters noted the injuries and deaths of Houston police shot by illegal immigrants and the murder trials of four suspects, three of whom were in the country illegally, in the death of a prominent local doctor.
Those testifying in opposition emphasized the potential for racial profiling and the hardship on immigrant families. Both groups cited their desire for national, comprehensive immigration reform, but it was supporters like computer consultant Larry Youngblood who seemed more in line with the commissioners, who quickly approved the agreement by a 4-1 vote.
“Why would anyone complain the feds are not doing their job and then turn around and not give them the help they need?” Mr. Youngblood said.