The Texas jail where Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell two years ago has quietly been enlisted by federal authorities in recent months to help target undocumented immigrants for deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reached an agreement with Waller County to deputize the sheriff’s office for the controversial immigration enforcement program 287(g). The program authorizes deputies to act on the behalf of ICE to arrest and detain people based on their immigration status. In turn, county officials are given broad powers to jumpstart deportation proceedings for immigrants who otherwise wouldn’t have been on the radar of federal agents.
Waller County now joins at least 25 other local police agencies in being newly enlisted to enforce federal laws, part of an aggressive immigration strategy prized by President Donald Trump. Together they represent a localized deportation force that’s growing by the day. But already, the roster of new recruits includes departments with imperfect track records. Despite 287(g)’s contentious reputation, even the most embattled police agencies are encouraged to join.
Waller County’s inclusion in federal immigration efforts is particularly extraordinary given its prominence in the fierce national debate over race relations and policing. Bland’s death in 2015 stood out as a major flashpoint in the social movement to end racialized police violence—her story highlighted how too often, young Black women are the lesser-known victims of state brutality.
The Waller County Jail was required to revamp its protocols and provide additional medical care in the wake of Bland’s death. Yet even after those reforms were implemented, major problems continued to persist.
The county jail came under investigation in March after a female prisoner alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a man who was also incarcerated in the jail. The man was performing cleaning duties for the jail at the time of the alleged incident. County officials later acknowledged that the inmate was never authorized to take on those duties in the first place.
The jail later failed its inspection with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, state documents show. Jail staff was found non-compliant in three separate areas, including violations for not keeping male and female inmates separate at all times, unless under direct supervision.
Within days of both the assault and the failed inspection, ICE officials formally approved Waller County’s application to join 287(g).
At least two deputies are set to receive training and certification to double as federal immigration agents under 287(g), a program that in the past Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has praised for streamlining the inmate booking process for jail staff. Smith declined an interview with Colorlines.
Not all police departments are allowed to enter 287(g) partnerships. Applications are reviewed behind closed doors by an internal advisory panel within ICE, which angers immigration advocates who say the process is veiled in secrecy. ICE officials will not say which agencies are under consideration for 287(g), nor how deeply their records are scrutinized before they’re approved.
“There is little oversight and little accountability over how these agreements happen,” says Astrid Dominguez, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas. “In places like Waller County, where they don’t have the best track record, this impacts not just immigrants, but also communities of color.”
Under the Obama Administration 287(g) earned a contentious reputation for uprooting immigrant communities and encouraging local police officers to single out people of color. At least two sheriff’s departments—in Maricopa County, Arizona and in Alamance County, North Carolina—were ejected from the program after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that they racially profiled Latinx drivers.
Texas activists are now concerned that the program’s loaded background doesn’t help Waller County’s already strained relations between police and people of color. Despite all that the community has been through, particularly after Bland’s death, it’s unclear whether officials have learned their lesson, says Bob Libal, executive director of the Texas-based civil rights group Grassroots Leadership.
“What 287(g) does is literally turn local police into deportation agents,” Libal added. “That’s obviously profoundly disturbing and certainly seeds distrust with law enforcement.”
Amanda Sakuma is an independent immigration and social justice reporter based in New York. She has previously worked as a national reporter at NBC News and MSNBC. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, The Intercept, The Village Voice, The Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. Amanda is currently a recipient of the IRE Freelance Fellowship to investigate partnerships between local law enforcement and the federal government on immigration. Follow Amanda on Twitter at @iamsakuma.