Wednesday, October 23, 2013

No more room at the inn

Anyone who practices criminal law in Harris County knows that the Harris County Jail is packed to the gills. The two main causes that people know about are coercive bond policies and arrests for possession of trace amounts of cocaine and other drugs. But there is another cause.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Harris County has spent almost $50 million over the past two years to hold illegal immigrants at the request of federal authorities. Over that time span, Harris County housed more than 30,000 detainees on immigration holds. That is more than two-and-a-half times what Travis County (the second ranking county) held during the same time period.

The reason for Houston's hospitality is the county's participation in two federal programs aimed at the immigrant community - 287(g) and Secure Communities. Under both programs, law enforcement officers in Harris County run inmates' fingerprints through an immigration database. Those that have "questionable" histories are reported to los federarles.

For its efforts, Harris County is reimbursed about $2 million by the federal government.

Critics of the programs, such as University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas said the programs encourage law enforcement agencies to overcharge immigrants. Alan Bernstein, chief apologist spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, has a different take on the matter. According to Mr. Bernstein, the immigrants sitting in the county jail on immigration detainers would be sitting in jail anyway so the programs aren't costing taxpayers any more money than would already have been spent.

But, conveniently, Mr. Bernstein seems to have forgotten that once an immigration detainer has been placed on a detainee he is held without bond. That means one less space to house an inmate.

Harris County has no business doing the work of federal immigration officials. As I have pointed out before, being in this country without the permission of the government is not a crime (albeit, coming into the country without permission is). Hiring illegal immigrants and not paying taxes is, however, against the law.

Many undocumented immigrants work to support their families here in the Houston area and back in their country of origin. They pay rent and they pay taxes. The taxes they pay help to fund the public schools and the county-run hospitals. They are here for the same reason my ancestors, and your's, came over generations ago -- to make a better life for themselves and their families.

These programs tear up families and punish children for the (alleged) sins of their parents. Funny that the "family values" folks who support Ted Cruz and the Tea Party have no qualms about tearing families apart, ain't it?

State Senator Tommy Williams (R- The Woodlands) argues that the federal government isn't doing its job and that states and localities need to be reimbursed for the number of detainees who are being held in our county jails. Mr. Williams seems to forget that no one forced counties to adopt these federal programs. No one came down from Washington and told local officials they were now going to be in charge of immigration policy on the ground.

Nope. The counties that are complaining about the cost of housing immigrants on federal detainers are the ones that decided to sign up to be junior immigration officials. If they don't like looking at the red numbers that indicate the amount of money they're spending, there is an easy solution -- just tell los federales they're no longer interested in doing their job.

At a time when we should be looking for ways to reduce our jail populations, programs that contribute to overcrowded jails should be questioned.

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