Community Meets to Discuss Immigration Reform Amid Fear, Uncertainty

Thursday night, City Hall East was packed with concerned community members anxious for information on how immigration reform would affect undocumented immigrants and their children in Denton.

Denton Police chief Lee Howell answered questions about federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and its relationship with local law enforcement. Officer Al Orozco translated questions and answers into Spanish and English for the audience and Howell throughout the meeting.  The meeting was a response to reports of ICE crackdowns and raids, and the fear that similar raids might be in store for Denton.

Howell said for an undocumented person, a routine traffic stop, paying a speeding ticket or an arrest for a minor crime rarely results in detainment or deportation.

 “I want to make it clear that the City of Denton Police Department currently does not have the authority to enforce immigration laws by ourselves, and we do not engage in that,” Lee said. “We do, however have a working relationship with all the agencies represented by acronyms.”

Howell said most people are taken to the municipal jail and won’t be held for long. Once someone has been arrested and identified, they’re entered into a state and national database. At this point, the information is available to ICE, the FBI and other federal agencies and the ICE agent assigned to Denton County might put a detainer on an undocumented person. Denton Police will only detain someone with a federal warrant or an ICE detainer.

“Most of the time, when we have someone in our municipal jail who’s been charged with an offense that is a higher, more serious crime, they’re going to be transferred to the county jail,” Howell said. “But most of the time, if someone in the city jail has no warrants, we release them.”

Howell said in almost all cases, routine traffic stops, citations, speeding tickets and arrests for misdemeanors won’t result in any action by ICE or another federal agency. In all cases, person being arrested must have some way of identifying themselves, regardless of immigration status.

After an audience member asked, Howell said undocumented minors in juvenile detention are not flagged by federal agencies after being taken into custody.

Howell said he wanted to avoid speculating on the future of immigration reform and made it clear that Denton is still not considered a sanctuary city, but will not take any new steps to enforce immigration laws.

“What we’re doing now is the same thing we were doing three years ago and three weeks ago,” Howell said. “We have not changed our procedures.”

Members of Latino Democrats of Denton County, the Denton branches of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, teachers, activists and religious leaders all attended the bilingual forum. City councilmembers Keely Briggs and Sara Bagheri also attended.

Bud Porter, a member of activist group Indivisible Denton, said the meeting was the start of an important dialogue.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty that puts people in significant danger. It’s worth discussing how the city feels about those situations cropping up,” Porter said. “I’m not asking them to become a sanctuary city. I know they don’t like the “S” word, but I definitely think we can do things to set the example of what it means to be a progressive city in Texas.”

Myrna Orozco, who attended the forum, said that while the meeting was informative, many undocumented immigrants were probably still afraid to attend or seek help. She said she already knows a family in Denton that has been effected by the increased immigration enforcement.

“The father has been taken away. He’s been moved from Denton, to Bedford, to Cleburne. We don’t know the outcome right now, the mom has an attorney,” Orozco said. “But now she’s fending for herself and trying to keep everything as normal as possible for [her children.] Right now, it’s survival time.”