Local residents and civil rights groups are trying to learn more about immigration laws as many cities grapple with uncertainty surrounding federal deportation procedures.
Lawmakers recently have proposed bills at the state and federal levels that could give local police more authority when it comes to deporting unauthorized immigrants.
In an attempt to quell some concerns, Denton Police Chief Lee Howell spoke to about 150 residents at Denton City Hall on Thursday evening to explain the basics of how the department works with federal deportation authorities. He also explained the department’s role when it comes to identifying and arresting unauthorized immigrants.
But during the hour-long forum, Howell said he could speak only to the department’s current enforcement policies.
“I cannot really speculate about what’s going to happen legislatively,” he said “It’s still uncertain.”
The Denton Police Department doesn’t have any individual authority when it comes to deporting unauthorized immigrants, Howell said. But the city does have a working relationship with federal agencies, primarily through the booking process at the city jail.
Inmates commonly are identified by their fingerprints when they’re booked into the jail. That information is recorded in a local database connected to other state and national databases, Howell said.
ICE agents, he said, have the ability to access the information and determine whether the inmate eventually should be deported. However, the city jail holds people for only a maximum of 24 hours. Most inmates are transferred to Denton County Jail after that time.
County officials said earlier this week Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree would attend the forum to answer questions. But city spokeswoman Lindsey Baker said he couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict.
Many residents at the forum asked Howell about police protocol during a traffic stop. More specifically, one audience member asked what would happen if an unauthorized immigrant presented an expired driver’s license to an officer.
“As far as I’m concerned, that is still a driving offense,” Howell said. “And 99 percent of the time, we’re going to write them a ticket for no driver’s license and let them drive away.”
Howell emphasized most situations depend on the officer’s direction, and he couldn’t speak for every circumstance.
Another attendee, Lilyan Prado Carrillo, who also serves as chairwoman of Denton’s Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas, said there is some fear in the immigrant community about the extent of an officer’s discretion.
Although Howell said officers typically are allowed to arrest someone for not having proper identification, Carrillo said some people are afraid officers might overuse that authority on undocumented immigrants.
“If they were to take it upon themselves to think that this is not enough identification for them, how can we keep from being targets?” she asked.
Howell reiterated that an officer’s actions depend on the circumstance.
Residents at the forum also asked about Senate Bill 4, which aims to punish law enforcement agencies who choose not to comply with federal immigration authorities. But Assistant City Manager John Cabrales again said the city has “no idea at this point what may or may not happen” with future legislation.
The forum started after a few local predominately Hispanic businesses closed as part of A Day Without Immigrants, a nationwide protest that aimed to underline the importance of immigrants in U.S. cities.
Around the country, protesters stayed home from work and school, while local restaurants and shops closed in solidarity with immigrants. In Denton, both La Azteca Meat Market stores closed for the day after the company announced on Facebook all locations would participate in the protest.
The Denton stores are at 619 E. Sherman Drive and 268 S. Interstate 35E.
“I’m in support of the immigrant community, which has a large population of not only Hispanics, but all kinds of races,” said Juan Ortega, who co-owns both stores.
Tortilleria La Sabrocita, normally open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., also was closed for the day. A sign posted on the business’ front door read, “Cerrado 16 De Feb. Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes,” which translates to “Closed Feb. 16. A Day Without Immigrants.”
It’s still unclear how much the protests impacted student attendance in Denton ISD. An employee at Rivera Elementary School, who requested not to be identified, said four to seven kids were reported absent in bilingual classes for kindergartners, second-graders and third-graders. For each of those grade levels, the school offers two bilingual classes, which usually consist of about 15 to 18 students in each class, the employee said.
The employee said some students were absent from a first-grade bilingual class. But the employee did not know the specific reason for any of the absences.
JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @juliangillmusic.