Law enforcement officials in Texas are wondering how they will enforce the migrant detention law
Law enforcement officials in Texas are wondering how they will enforce the migrant detention law

SANDERSON, Texas (AP) — During the nine hours that Texas was allowed to arrest and deport people who enter the US illegally., Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland never changed his tactics with migrants in his remote border county.

Not because I oppose the idea. There’s just no practical way to do it, said the sheriff of Terrell County, where an average of about 10 people each day were caught crossing the border from Mexico last year.

“We don’t have a van to use to transport people,” said Cleveland, whose county abuts more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) of border, most of which is an unforgiving, rocky desert landscape.

Texas’ extraordinary expansion in immigration enforcement remained on hold Thursday after a whirlwind of legal action that includes the Supreme Court, which allowed it to take effect Tuesday while sending it back to an appeals court for further review. Shortly before midnight on 5th Circuit Court of Appeals again delayed the law, known as Senate Bill 4.

The confusion along the vast Texas frontier during this short period revealed that many sheriffs were unprepared, incompetent, or uninterested enforcement of SB4 on first place. For months, Texas has been making urgent appeals to judges that the state can’t afford to wait for tougher border measures. But it has a chance to test Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott’s latest provocation with the Biden administration on immigration, there is no indication that any Texas law enforcement has tried.

Defiance by the Mexican government, which has said it will not accept any migrants Texas is trying to send back across the border, and wariness among law enforcement officials cast uncertainty over what full enforcement will look like.

The law would allow it any law enforcement officer in Texas to arrest people suspected of entering the country illegally. But Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith, president of the Texas Sheriffs Association, said the law would have little effect in his East Texas jurisdiction, which is much closer to neighboring Louisiana and Oklahoma than Mexico.

“Our office won’t have much to do with Senate Bill 4 unless we’re working with one of our brother sheriffs or sister sheriffs on the border,” Smith said, “because you’ve got to be able to prove they crossed the border illegally. And unfortunately you can’t do that that far in the state of Texas without infringing on some of their rights.

“If we start going around and talking to everybody and asking for documents, where do we stop?” Smith said.

Once apprehended, migrants can either comply with a Texas judge’s order to leave the US or be prosecuted on charges of illegal entry. The law states that they must be sent to ports of entry along the US-Mexico border, even if they are not Mexican citizens. Migrants who do not leave can be rearrested on more serious criminal charges.

In court, Texas argued that the law reflected the immigration measures of the US government. The Justice Department says this is a clear violation of federal authorities and will create chaos at the border.

Abbott reminded a crowd at a conservative policy conference in Austin this week that even with SB4 on hold, Texas can still arrest migrants trespassing on private property. Che more limited operation started in 2021. On Thursday, Abbott said a barbed wire fence the state installs in El Paso was doubled after a group of migrants broke through a barrier and rushed past several members of the Texas National Guard trying to detain them.

Like many sheriffs and law enforcement officials who say they support the new law, Cleveland faces serious logistical problems in implementing it. His county has fewer than 1,000 residents, his jail has a capacity of only seven people, and the nearest port is more than 2 1/2 hours away by car.

“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing: turn the people we catch over to the U.S. Border Patrol and then wait for the courts to figure out what they’re going to do,” Cleveland said.

Typical calls to the Cleveland office about migrants who may have entered the U.S. illegally include people who have crossed miles of high desert with limited supplies in hopes of finding work.

Responding to a call from a landowner on Thursday, Cleveland encountered a 32-year-old migrant from Mexico trying to make his way to pick strawberries in Florida. He engaged him in conversation in Spanish, asked if he needed food or water, and took him to the holding room in his office to wait for the Border Patrol.

“The vast majority that we catch, the illegal aliens, are no different than me or you,” Cleveland said. “I like to talk to them in Spanish, find out where they’re from, find out where they’re going, things like that.”

Republican lawmakers wrote the law to apply to all 254 counties in the state, although Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said he expected it to apply mostly near the border.

About 100 sheriffs visited the state Capitol in Austin on Wednesday to express their support to Abbott for the new law, but their responses were mixed on how they would actually implement it.

Still, the fear among residents was palpable at a regular meeting Wednesday at a community center in a southwest Houston neighborhood that is home to many Latino and immigrant families. Police Chief Tony Finner was asked numerous questions about the law and what reassurances it might provide to people who may now be reluctant to report crimes because they fear being arrested because of their immigration status.

One woman told Finner in Spanish that the new law “destroys the relationship between the community and the police. This creates an image of the police as the enemy, when in reality they are the ones protecting us.

Ruben Perez, the chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Special Crimes Bureau, tried to reassure residents, saying the law was not in effect and the U.S. Constitution protects everyone.

“We don’t care if you’re here legally or illegally or if you got here legally or illegally. We will protect you,” he said to applause. “That’s the message I want to leave.”


Murphy reported from Oklahoma City. Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas and Juan Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

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