News Room

Sheriff must adopt clear policy on migrants
July 11, 2006

The settlement of a civil rights lawsuit that El Paso County commissioners approved Monday requires a clear immigration policy in the Sheriff's Office.

Written by Brandi Grissom, El Paso Times


AUSTIN -- The settlement of a civil rights lawsuit that El Paso County commissioners approved Monday requires a clear immigration policy in the Sheriff's Office but leaves questions about whether controversial traffic checkpoints will continue.

"This directive will have an effect on all peace officers in their day-to-day duties," said Jo Anne Bernal, first assistant county attorney.

Commissioners agreed to settle a lawsuit filed in May by Carl Starr, of Tornillo, that alleged sheriff's deputies violated his civil rights and attempted to enforce federal civil immigration laws outside of their jurisdiction. The suit also claimed the deputies conducted unlawful searches, seizures and detentions.

In the settlement, the county denied any wrongdoing and agreed to pay Starr $500 and his attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project $3,500.

The settlement also requires El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego to provide a clear written policy prohibiting deputies from enforcing civil immigration laws and to train them on the limits of their authority to enforce those laws.

"We achieved what we wanted to achieve through this lawsuit, and I think it's very good for everybody in El Paso County," said Jim Harrington, Texas Civil Rights Project director, who represented Starr.

There was no clear answer Monday, though, on how the legal settlement would affect whether Samaniego would reinstitute traffic checkpoints he suspended June 23.

The suspension came after weeks of fire from politicians and immigrants'-rights groups, who said sheriff's deputies were using the checkpoints to find and report undocumented immigrants, and after news reports found deputies at the checkpoints called U.S. Border Patrol to report hundreds of undocumented immigrants.

The settlement does not address the checkpoints specifically.

"It will affect the way they enforce traffic checkpoints if and when they reinstitute them some day in the future," Bernal said.

She said the policies required under the settlement would prevent deputies from using checkpoints to report undocumented immigrants.

El Paso County Commissioner Miguel Teran said the settlement should put a stop to the checkpoints.

"I don't see it (happening) anymore," he said. "This takes care of that."

But Sheriff's Office spokesman Rick Glancey said the settlement would have no bearing on Samaniego's decision whether to restart traffic checkpoints.

Glancey has said the traffic checkpoints were not meant to find undocumented immigrants, but only to ensure drivers had licenses and insurance.

"The sheriff is still collecting documents in terms of our checkpoints," he said, adding that an announcement of his decision would come in a couple of weeks.

In a written statement Monday, Samaniego said he "will commit to a more clear written understanding of our mission to fairly and impartially enforce all laws, including the trafficking of persons."

He did not commit to the additional training requirements of the settlement, instead emphasizing that he said on June 23 he would review the department's training policy.

"I stated emphatically on June 23, 2006 that we don't enforce federal immigration law," Samaniego said.

Fernando Garcia, director of the Texas Border Network for Human Rights, said the group would not withdraw its petition calling for Samaniego's dismissal until the department begins to rebuild trust in the immigrant community.

He said the sheriff's temporary stop to checkpoints and reporting undocumented immigrants to Border Patrol were good first steps, but more action is needed. Checkpoints should be permanently stopped, Garcia said, and the sheriff should make efforts to educate the immigrant community about new policies that prohibit immigration law enforcement.

Garcia said many immigrants, with and without documents, remain hesitant to report crimes to the sheriff's department and still fear leaving their homes to attend church, work and school.

"We'll withdraw that petition when conditions change in the community -- we will consider that," Garcia said. "But we're not there yet."

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