Law Enforcement Officials In Texas Wonder How They Will Enforce Migrant Arrest Law

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

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

"We don't have a van that we can use to transport people in," said Cleveland, whose county touches more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) of border, most of which is an unforgiving rocky desert landscape.

Texas' extraordinary expansion into immigration enforcement remained on hold Thursday after a whirl of legal action that included the Supreme Court allowing it to take effect Tuesday while sending it back to an appellate court for further review. Shortly before midnight, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals put the law known as Senate Bill 4 back on hold.

The confusion along Texas' vast border during that brief window revealed that many sheriffs were unprepared, unable or uninterested in enforcing SB4 in the first place. For months, Texas has made urgent appeals to judges that the state cannot afford to wait for tougher border measures. But given a chance to test Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's latest provocation with the Biden administration over immigration, there was no indication any law enforcement agency in Texas tried.

Defiance from the Mexican government, which said it would not accept any migrants whom Texas attempts to send back across the border, and caution among law enforcement officials cast uncertainty over what a full implementation would look like.

The law would allow any Texas law enforcement officer to arrest people suspected of entering the country illegally. But Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith, the president of the Texas Sheriff's Association, said the law will have little effect in his jurisdiction in East Texas, which is far 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 have to be able to prove they came across the border illegally. And unfortunately you can't do that this far into the state of Texas without violating some of their rights.

"If we start going and talking to everybody and asking for papers, where do we stop?" Smith said.

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. The law says they 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 the law mirrors the U.S. government's immigration enforcement. The Justice Department has argued that it is a clear violation of federal authority and would 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 could still arrest migrants who trespass on private property. That more limited operation began in 2021. On Thursday, Abbott said razor wire fencing the state installed in El Paso was being redoubled after a group of migrants breached a barrier and rushed past several Texas National Guard members attempting to hold them back.

Like many sheriffs and law enforcement officers who say they support the new law, Cleveland faces serious logistical problems in how to implement it. His county has fewer than 1,000 residents, his jail has a capacity for just seven people and the closest port of entry is a drive of more than 2 1/2 hours away.

"We'll continue to do what we do: turn over people we apprehend 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 Cleveland's office about migrants who may have entered the U.S. illegally involve people who have traversed miles of high desert with limited supplies hoping to find work.

In 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 brought him to a holding room at his office to wait for Border Patrol.

"The vast majority that we catch, illegal aliens, are no different than me or you," Cleveland said. "I enjoy having conversations with them in Spanish, finding out where they're from, finding out where they're going, things of that nature."

Republican legislators wrote the law so that it applies in all of the state's 254 counties, although Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has said he expects it will mostly be enforced near the border.

About 100 sheriffs visited the state Capitol in Austin on Wednesday to express support to Abbott for the new law, but their responses were mixed about how they would actually enforce 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 he could provide people who may now not want to report crimes because they fear being arrested over their immigration status.

One woman told Finner in Spanish that the new law is "fracturing the relationship between the community and the police. It's creating an image of the police as the enemy when in reality they are the ones that protect us."

Ruben Perez, the special crimes bureau chief in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, sought to reassure residents, saying the law is not in effect and the U.S. Constitution protects everyone.

"We don't care whether you're here legally or illegally or whether you got here legally or illegally. We are going to protect you," he said, prompting applause. "That's the message that I want to leave."