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Rural sheriffs in West Texas may not enforce state's controversial immigration law


Next month, Texas begins its latest effort to supplant the federal government. A state law moves Texas into immigration policy, traditionally a federal job. It empowers law enforcement in that state to arrest people who are suspected of crossing the border illegally. They can be detained on state charges instead of being turned over to federal border officials, who often release asylum-seekers until their court dates. But as the state prepares to push aside federal authority, some local sheriffs say they cannot follow the lead of the state. Marfa Public Radio's Travis Bubenik reports.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL AGENT: If y'all just want to go up on Brownsville, and...

TRAVIS BUBENIK, BYLINE: A Border Patrol agent comes on the radio in Terrell County Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland's truck as he heads down a rocky desert road with sweeping views of the southern border in Mexico in the distance.

THADDEUS CLEVELAND: From here, I mean, you can see 100 miles to the east and 100 miles to the west and 100 miles to the south.

BUBENIK: Down at the border, Cleveland hops out of his truck and points out a common spot where people cross the Rio Grande here in the rugged, mountainous Big Bend region of West Texas.

CLEVELAND: They'll walk down to that canyon, and then they'll, down along the river, come up.

BUBENIK: Cleveland, a former Border Patrol agent himself, says he supports the new law making illegal border crossings a misdemeanor state crime and a felony for a repeat offense. But he says he won't be arresting migrants.

CLEVELAND: We don't have the resources to jail or house people where I can just easily turn them over to Border Patrol.

BUBENIK: This far-flung desert region of West Texas sees much fewer migrant crossings than South Texas, where tens of thousands of people regularly cross a month. Cleveland argues the new law is more aimed at those parts of the border. But sheriffs across the Texas border, from El Paso to Eagle Pass, the recent epicenter of migrant crossings, say their communities aren't equipped to handle the new law. Ronny Dodson is the sheriff in the Big Bend's Brewster County.

RONNY DODSON: My problem is in our area is we don't have no place to put them.

BUBENIK: He says the cost of jailing and feeding people arrested under the law could quickly add up.

DODSON: I mean, even if we arrest them and put them in jail, most of these folks ain't never going to be able to pay a fine. I worry about the burden that's going to put on these counties.

BUBENIK: That's also a concern next door in Presidio County.

JOE PORTILLO: We don't have a lot of money.

BUBENIK: Joe Portillo is the county's top elected official.

PORTILLO: Once you take someone into custody, it does have a fiscal cost. They need to eat. God forbid one of them needs a doctor. There will be an added cost to the county.

BUBENIK: Texas officials have allowed local governments to apply for some of a $1.5 billion pot of new state border security funding, but it's not clear how much of that will actually go to offsetting the costs of enforcing the new law. There's some concern among law enforcement about how much leeway they'll have on arresting migrants. A few years ago, lawmakers here banned immigration sanctuary cities and allowed the state attorney general to sue local officials who block the enforcement of certain immigration laws. Skylor Hearn heads the Sheriffs' Association of Texas.

SKYLOR HEARN: The way it's written, it applies to immigration law enforcement. And so if you take a stance on this law, should it go into effect, of saying, I'm not going to do it, then potentially a county could open themselves up to that kind of action from the AG.

BUBENIK: Back on the banks of the Rio Grande, Sheriff Cleveland says the new law won't change his day to day much.

CLEVELAND: If I encounter somebody that's crossed our border illegally, then first thing I'll do will be give Border Patrol a call.

BUBENIK: So while Texas leaders continue to assert more authority over the border than ever, some sheriffs, at least in the state's rural border areas, say they'll leave the job of immigration enforcement to the feds.

For NPR News, I'm Travis Bubenik in Marfa, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Travis Bubenik