In West Texas, rural sheriffs may not enforce state’s controversial new immigration law

Some border sheriffs in the Big Bend area say their small departments don’t have the resources to arrest migrants under a new Texas law set to take effect in March.

By Travis Bubenik, Marfa Public RadioJanuary 26, 2024 9:45 am,

From Marfa Public Radio:

A new Texas law directly challenging the federal government’s role on the border is set to take effect in March, if lawsuits don’t stop it.

Immigration enforcement has long been the federal government’s job, but the new lawgives police in Texas the power to arrest people suspected of crossing the border illegally on state charges.

As legal challenges brought by the Justice Department and others play out, local police departments are considering how they’d handle this new power. In the state’s Big Bend region, some rural sheriffs say they’re not eager to enforce the new law.

On a recent chilly winter day in rural Terrell County, Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland listened to Border Patrol dispatches on his truck radio as he drove down a rocky desert road toward the Rio Grande.

“From here, I mean you can see 100 miles to the east and 100 miles to the west, and 100 miles to the south,” he said.

Down at the border, Cleveland hopped out of his truck and pointed out what he said is a common place to cross the border in this rugged, mountainous part of the state. The sheriff’s a former Border Patrol agent himself, though his job’s not that different these days.

“The majority of what we do ends up being calls to assist Border Patrol, to assist a landowner that may have spotted somebody on their land,” he said.

On this particular day it’s quiet at the border, the trickling of the Rio Grande through a steep canyon the only noticeable sound.

A view of the Rio Grande and Mexico from Terrell County, Texas.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio

The scene is a reminder that the Big Bend region sees much fewer migrant encounters – as U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls them – than South Texas, where thousandsof people have crossed in recent weeks. Cleveland argues the new state immigration law is aimed more at addressing issues on other parts of the border than his.

Out here, he said, he won’t be arresting migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally.

“What I’ll be doing is no different than what I do now,” he said. “If I encounter somebody that’s crossed our border illegally, then first thing I do will be: give Border Patrol a call.”

The sheriff’s not passing on the new law because he disagrees with it.

Cleveland’s an outspoken critic of the Biden administration’s policies on border security and immigration; he regularly talks about it on conservative TV news outlets. But he said his small department just doesn’t have the resources to take migrants into custody.

Sheriff Ronny Dodson in neighboring Brewster County echoed that.

“My problem is, in our area, we don’t have no place to put them,” he said.

Even though border crossing numbers here are the lowest anywhere on the southwest border, Dodson said it wouldn’t take much to stress his department.

“We could stop one truck and fill the jail up,” he said.

Dodson said the financial costs of housing and feeding people arrested under the new border law could quickly add up.

“Even if we arrest them and put them in jail, most of these folks ain’t never going to be able to pay a fine,” he said. “So I worry about the burden it’s going to put on these counties.”

That’s also a concern over in Presidio County.

“This is the poorest county in Texas,” said Joe Portillo, the county’s top elected official. “Once you take someone into custody, it does have a fiscal cost – they need to eat, God forbid one of them needs a doctor, they need medication – but there will be an added cost to the county.”

Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo, the county’s top elected official.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio

To help offset those costs, Texas lawmakers did pass a separate measure allowing local governments to apply for some of the $1.5 billion in new border security money approved last year. But it’s not clear how much of that will be available.

None of the officials interviewed for this story expressed the same kind of human rights concerns about the new law that critics have highlighted, particularly worries that it could lead to racial profiling. But Fernando García, with the El Paso-based advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights, said his group is deeply concerned about police being untrained in immigration enforcement.

“It’s a formula to expect systemic civil and human rights violations,” he said.

Back on the banks of the Rio Grande, Sheriff Cleveland said plainly he supports the new law and Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security crackdown as a whole.

“He’s the governor of the state of Texas, and his job is to protect Texans, and I think he’s doing that exactly,” he said.

But as Texas continues to assert more authority over the border than it ever has before, some sheriffs here in this far-flung part of the state say they’ll leave the job of immigration enforcement to the feds.

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