El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles defended using the county’s jails to hold federal prisoners, including undocumented immigrants.
There has been continuous debate regarding the detention of undocumented immigrants in the El Paso County jail system.
“My thought has always been if somebody’s here illegally (and) they’re committing crimes, I would prefer they not be back out in the street committing more crime,” Wiles said Thursday at a Downtown meeting of the Rotary Club of El Paso.
Last year, a judge accused Wiles of contempt of court after an inmate whom the judge had ordered released remained jailed on an immigration detainer before he was picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A court cleared Wiles in the contempt-of-court case last October.
Wiles added that Texas Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law that went into effect this year, now requires counties to honor federal immigration holds at local jails.
“Now, I’ve always supported holding people on detainers,” Wiles said.
Wiles explained that ICE can question county inmates to determine whether they are in the country illegally. ICE then can place a detainer on an inmate, which holds that person in jail after his or her sentence is served.
Once the inmate’s state charge is dealt with, ICE has 48 hours to come pick up the inmate on federal immigration charges, Wiles said.
“You may have heard in the past, and it is true today, I am not in favor of local and county law enforcement enforcing federal immigration law, but I’m not going to stand in the way of the federal government doing their job,” Wiles said.
“If they (ICE agents) come into the jail and they find somebody there who is not in this country legally and they want to deal with that individual, they should have the right to enforce the federal law. That’s their job. It’s not my job; it’s their job.”
Federal prisoner issue
The debate continues with the question of whether the El Paso County Jail should be under contract to hold federal inmates, including undocumented immigrants.
County Commissioner Vince Perez has opposed holding undocumented immigrants at the El Paso County Jail, arguing that the practice goes against the values of the community.
Wiles told the Rotary Club that the federal inmate contract is worth about $24 million a year.
“If we have beds available, it’s better to have people in those beds,” Wiles said, explaining that per-inmate costs are lower when there are more inmates in jail.
The Downtown jail can house about 1,000 inmates and the Jail Annex can hold more than 1,800, Wiles said.
If immigrants were not held in the El Paso County jail system, they would end up in privately-run detention centers outside El Paso, Wiles said.
The loss of the federal prisoner contract also could cause the layoff of 280 employees, the sheriff added.
“They federal government likes using our jail because we are right here. We’re Downtown across from the federal courthouse,” Wiles said.
“It makes sense,” he added. “It’s safer and, quite frankly, our jail is well-run and it’s inspected every year by the federal government and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.”
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