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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Houston Police Dept will not screen for immigration

The Houston Police Department will not participate in a controversial immigration screening program, federal officials said on Friday, ending a months-long saga over the city's plans.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had designated this week as the national deadline for agencies to sign recently revamped agreements in order to participate in the federal government's 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to act as immigration agents.
October 16, 2009 - Susan Carroll, Houston Chronicle: On Friday, ICE officials released a list of the 55 agencies that had signed formal agreements with ICE. A dozen agencies, including the Harris County Sheriff's Office, had reached agreements with ICE, but still were awaiting approval from their governing bodies to sign off on the partnerships.

HPD was on a short list of a half-dozen agencies that either withdrew from negotiations or did not re-sign agreements with ICE, according to ICE officials. Carl Rusnok, an ICE spokesman, said on Friday that HPD had voluntarily withdrawn from 287(g), “as the program did not correlate with their specific law enforcement needs.”

Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said he was unaware that ICE's announcement was coming Friday. He said the city had not officially “withdrawn” from negotiations and never heard back from ICE on the city's proposed changes to the standard agreement. But the mayor has distanced himself publicly from 287(g) recently, saying negotiations with ICE had stalled and the program was not tailored to suit Houston's needs.

This spring, after a Houston police officer was critically injured in a shooting by an illegal immigrant, White formally requested that Homeland Security officials expedite his request that the city participate in 287(g).

ICE announced in July that HPD was accepted to the program. But the city and ICE became deadlocked over a range of issues related to the program, from how it should be administered to which agency should shoulder the costs. Houston had wanted only serious criminals targeted, city officials said.

White, who is running for the U.S. Senate, earlier this month said ICE officials were “bureaucratic” in the negotiations, and appeared to be shying away from the program. White said he would prefer the city participate in another ICE program, called Secure Communities, which gives local law enforcement access to a massive immigration database to check suspects' immigration history. Michel said Friday the city was still interested in the Secure Communities program.

ICE's announcement met with a mixed local reaction. “I'm severely disappointed,” said Curtis Collier, the head of the Spring-based organization U.S. Border Watch. “The city was never really enthused about participating anyway.”

Cesar Espinosa, a Houston immigrant advocate who has organized protests against the program, said the announcement Friday “shows the fruit of the labor we've been doing for the past year or so, in terms of getting HPD not to sign onto 287(g).” “To us, it's only a confirmation of the fact that HPD and Mayor White have retracted their willingness to participate in the flawed 287(g) program,” Espinosa said.

But he said he was concerned that the Harris County Sheriff's Office is still on the list of agencies working toward formal approval, saying “we're mindful that the struggle at the county level is still very much alive.”

The Sheriff's Office has participated in 287(g) since August and has eight deputies who assist ICE in the jails. It also was the first law enforcement agency in the country to sign on for the Secure Communities program last October. The county's continued participation in 287(g) requires approval of the Harris County Commissioner's Court. The Sheriff's Office is planning to submit its agreement with ICE at the commissioners' meeting on Oct. 27, a sheriff's spokesman said.

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