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Border & Immigration Update: Harris County Sheriff Testifies In Confirmation Hearing To Lead ICE

 Sheriff Ed Gonzalez speaking to jail detainees at the unveiling of the “Brothers in Arms” program at Harris County Jail on July 25, 2019.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez speaking to jail detainees at the unveiling of the “Brothers in Arms” program at Harris County Jail on July 25, 2019.

Here’s a rundown of border and immigration news from Texas and beyond. Look out for a weekly recap featuring reporting from NPR and Texas’ public radio stations.

Harris County Sheriff Testifies Before Senate In Confirmation Hearing To Lead ICE

On Thursday, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee as the Biden Administration’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If approved, he’ll become the first Senate-approved ICE director since the Obama administration.

Earlier this week, Houston Public Media offered a look at Gonzalez's record in Texas and what it could signal about his future with ICE. Gonzalez has spoken out against the Trump administration’s immigration raids — and even stopped some local cooperation with ICE by ending the 287(g) program in Harris County, something senators questioned him about during his hearing.

But thousands of people in the county’s custody have ended up in ICE detention during his time as sheriff, according to data from Syracuse University. During the hearing Thursday, Gonzalez said the decision to end 287(g) in Harris County was based on budgetary concerns at the sheriff’s office. He said he would not seek to terminate the program on a national level.

Senators also questioned Gonzalez about mistreatment of migrants in private ICE detention centers. “The health and safety of our facilities is paramount,” he said. “I would want to understand what oversight and safeguards are in place to make sure that there are certain standards that are being met.”

Some immigrant advocates told Houston Public Media that Gonzalez’s failure to implement transformative changes at the Harris County Jail have made them skeptical about his ability to make change at one of the most heavily criticized agencies in the federal government.

The Senate will likely decide whether to confirm Gonzalez in the coming weeks. For Houston Public Media’s full story on the hearing, click here.

Collaboration Between ICE And Local Law Enforcement Continues In Tarrant County

In Tarrant County, the 287(g) program no longer has an expiration date after county commissioners renewed it indefinitely last year. As KERA reported this week, opponents are still speaking out against the program, which they say creates an unfair system that destroys any trust law enforcement may have with immigrant communities.

Around the country, 146 local law enforcement agencies have some form of a 287(g) agreement with ICE, including 26 in Texas.

New ICE Policy Limits Detention Of Pregnant Women & New Mothers

On July 9, ICE issued a new policy directing agents not to detain pregnant women or nursing mothers in all but “very limited circumstances” in which the person “poses an imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm” or “a national security concern.”

As the Fronteras Desk reports, pregnant women were usually exempt from ICE detention under former President Barack Obama, but former President Donald Trump reversed that policy in 2017. ICE detained more than 2,000 pregnant women the following year. This new directive expands on the Obama-era restrictions to include people who are nursing and postpartum.

The new directive does not limit detention of pregnant women by Customs and Border Protection. Click here to listen to Fronteras’ interview with Rocio Castañeda, an attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, who shares more details.

Texas Official Sues Biden Administration Over Decision To Halt Wall Construction

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced on Wednesday that he has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, claiming the president is illegally preventing the construction of a wall on the Texas-Mexico border. The lawsuit comes after Gov. Greg Abbott announced his administration’s plan to complete that wall, using private donations and at least $250 million of state money.

According toThe Texas Tribune, Bush’s complaint argues that between 2018 and 2021, Congress approved $5 billion to build barriers along the border, and that Biden has no legal right to divert those funds to other uses.

Bush announced in June that he’s running for Attorney General of Texas.

Texas Counties Submit Budgets For Gov. Abbott’s Border Plan

Officials in the 28 counties that agreed to be part of Gov. Abbott’s border disaster declaration had until July 9 to submit budgets to the governor’s office for what the administration calls “expenses related to the ongoing border crisis.”

In the Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol sector with the most “encounters” so far this year, county officials declined to declare local disasters, saying they weren't seeing conditions that merited the designation. Meanwhile, in the Big Bend Sector, which has seen less than a tenth of the encounters that the Valley has, officials in several counties did declare disasters and submitted costs to the state. Some in the sparsely populated region told Marfa Public Radio they needed help with the costs of handling increased migrant deaths and making arrests for smuggling and burglary, while others were focused on funding for new equipment for law enforcement.

Speaking to Marfa Public Radio, sheriffs and county judges in Far West Texas expressed a mixture of support, hesitation, and confusion in response to the governor’s border plan. The ACLU of Texas has advised county officials not to participate, saying it could be unconstitutional. Click here for the full story.

Funding for law enforcement in the participating counties was on the agenda for the governor’s special legislative session, but movement there has stalled since Democratic lawmakers walked out this week to prevent the passage of bills that would create new voting restrictions in the state. ThisTexas Tribunestory has details on the walkout.

North Texas Becomes Fastest-Growing Metro Area for Immigrants

According to a new analysis of census data by the think tank New American Economy, more than 48,000 new immigrants moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area from 2018 to 2019, making it the fastest growing metro area in the country for new immigrants.

“It's a good sign because it means there's opportunity there and it's a good sign because when people come, they create opportunity,” the think tank’s Executive Director Jeremy Robbins told KERA.

According to Robbins, immigrants who've moved to North Texas are 25% more likely than U.S.-born residents to start a business. In 2019, the Dallas-Fort Worth area had 104,341 immigrant entrepreneurs.

Dallas is also now part of a national program that aims to reconnect immigrants with the careers they started abroad. Check out that KERA story here.

Annie Rosenthal is the border reporter at Marfa Public Radio, and a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Annie at annie@marfapublicradio.org. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnieRosenthal8.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Annie Rosenthal