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Sheriffs worry about housing detained migrants at US-Mexico border

Rural sheriffs who support the law criminalizing illegal entry into the U.S. are concerned about housing the expected influx of apprehended migrants.
Sheriffs worry about housing detained migrants at US-Mexico border
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 01, 2024

Texas' expansion into immigration enforcement remains on hold as it winds its way through the federal courts.

The law known as SB4 gives state and local police the authority to arrest people suspected of crossing into the U.S. illegally. It makes illegal entry onto U.S. soil a state crime, first punishable as a misdemeanor, then a felony for repeat offenders.

The question for a rural county in West Texas—whose leaders support the law—is how much it will cost to enforce.

Terrell County is sparsely populated with less than a thousand people, but it's the tenth largest county in Texas in terms of land mass. Sharing roughly 50 miles of border with Mexico, it lies right next door to Big Bend National Park. It has wide open spaces, picturesque canyons, and acres of scrub brush. A hiker can venture down to the Rio Grande, the natural barrier between the U.S. and Mexico, and throw a stone to the other side.

Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland served as a U.S. Border Patrol agent for more than two decades before switching to local law enforcement. 

The sheriff says there's relatively little crime in Terrell County but wants the new arrest powers granted in SB4. He thinks uncontrolled immigration is still a problem with an outsized impact on Terrell County. He patrols as much of the 2,300 square miles in his county almost every day.

"I tell people this area is the roughest, toughest most unforgiving portion of the U.S.-Mexico border," said Cleveland.

The area is mostly desert and is a tough place for migrants to cross. Those who do are usually seasonal laborers looking to cross without inspection into the country.

"We don't have people looking to surrender for asylum purposes or other political relief. What we encounter are people that want to cross the border illegally. Many of these are trying to find jobs like picking strawberries in Santa Maria, California," Cleveland added.

Regardless of intentions, economic or not, good or bad, Cleveland worries that his home county is not secure, and he encourages more aggressive state laws to police immigration.

Right now, he can take people into custody if he catches migrants trespassing on private property or in the vehicles of smugglers.

SEE MORE: Texas' migrant arrest law will remain on hold under new court ruling

Cleveland says his office was able to snare roughly ten people per day crossing illegally in 2023 under his existing powers. Those numbers of people crossing in far-out Terrell County pale in comparison with other parts of the southwest border, but the sheriff is still concerned.

"They want to sneak in the United States, and then they want to make their trek north undetected. If they are detected and we encounter them out in the desert, they typically run or abscond. And then, if we interdict them on the highway, it usually turns into a high-speed vehicle pursuit," Cleveland said.

Under SB4, he and his deputies could question people about their citizenship in routine interactions—like a traffic stop—and arrest them if they suspect they are here illegally.

Amid court wrangling, the law was briefly in effect on Mar. 21, but in those nine hours, the sheriff says he didn't arrest anyone under that authority.

The law is on hold as the U.S. Department of Justice has sued, arguing SB4 is unconstitutional. In court filings, the DOJ argues that Texas is trampling on the federal government's sole authority to enforce the nation's immigration laws.

Cleveland, who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for more than two decades, doesn't see the law as a problem but rather another tool for him to help federal agents. He does have concerns about how to implement it and how his county would pay for it.

"I support it, but there are some questions that are left to be answered as far as some of that funding for resources," said Cleveland. 

The county jail has a capacity of seven people, and it doesn't have separate quarters for male and female inmates. Terrell County only has five law enforcement personnel, including the sheriff, to patrol roughly 2,300 square miles of land. County Judge Dale Carruthers, also a firm supporter of SB4, told Scripps News that the county budget only amounts to $1.8 million to pay for everything—from police to schools to roads.

"We're financially strapped," Carruthers said. "You know, anything else that would be an unfunded mandate could cripple this county." She added that Texas' border security effort, dubbed Operation Lone Star, gives her county a critical lifeline, especially for law enforcement. It has paid for the addition of two sheriff's deputies.

But there are other costs too: transportation of potential migrant arrests out of the county to bigger jails, as well as lawyers to prosecute the state charges and public defenders for the migrants in local courts. Operation Lone Star has spent large sums of resources in this portion of Texas, especially for the prosecution of state crimes against migrants who have crossed into the U.S.

If the new law takes effect first, it makes it a misdemeanor for a migrant to enter the country illegally and a felony if he or she repeats the offense, with penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

Once in custody, migrants could either agree to a Texas judge's order to leave the U.S. or be prosecuted on misdemeanor charges of illegal entry.  Additionally, the law says the migrants are to be sent to ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, even if they are not Mexican citizens. Migrants who don't leave could face arrest again under more serious felony charges.

In court, Texas has argued that the law mirrors the U.S. government's immigration enforcement, but the Justice Department has argued that it is a clear violation of federal authority and would create chaos at the border. The Mexican government has also registered its opposition to the state law and said it would not accept any migrants the state of Texas attempts to send back across the border.

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