In an act of defiance to President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda, a Police Chief in Texas released a dozen undocumented immigrants found in a tractor-trailer from government custody and turned them over to local immigrants rights organizations instead of ICE until their cases are reviewed and processed.
In late July, the city of San Antonio, Texas, woke up to the deadliest human smuggling tragedy in more than a decade. The tragedy led Police Chief William McManus to do something unusual: He opted to retain local control over a similar investigation, rather than hand the case off to his federal counterparts at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
According to the San Antonio Express News and comments McManus made to reporters Thursday, the story began on December 23, when an SAPD officer responded to a call regarding a suspicious 18-wheeler parked with its trailer door open.
The report continues:
“A man who identified himself as the owner of the truck was pacing around the vehicle, the responding officer reported. Inside the trailer, along both sides, were a dozen people — 10 men and two women. When the officer asked one of the men where he was from, the man responded, “Guatemala.”
By the time McManus arrived, the 12 individuals, suspected of being undocumented immigrants, were seated on a curb. Consistent with past investigations, special agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations wing had already been notified. McManus said Thursday that he was at the scene “for probably a good hour and a half” before he made a highly uncommon call: Breaking with tradition, his department would handle the case on its own, pursuing it as a state-level smuggling investigation.
The driver, Herbert Alan Nichols, was arrested. Under questioning at police headquarters, the 58-year-old reportedly admitted to picking up the migrants at a warehouse in the border city of Laredo. Under the state smuggling charge, he could serve as many as 20 years in prison. Following interviews with detectives, the men and women found in the trailer, ranging from ages 16 to 41, were released to local organizations working on immigration issues. McManus told the press that his officers did not have the jurisdiction to hold the individuals and enforce immigration laws against them.
Veteran law enforcement officials say it’s virtually unheard of to see the San Antonio Police Department turn down ICE’s assistance on a smuggling investigation.
“I can’t recall a situation like this, where the state [or] local chose to use a state statute instead of letting us work the case,” said Jerry Robinette, a former special agent in charge of HSI in San Antonio, according to The Intercept.
Julian Calderas, a former deputy field office director in San Antonio for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, echoed Robinette’s view.
“I don’t think that I ever saw a situation where there was clearly organized smuggling that they didn’t,” Calderas told the San Antonio Express News.
The San Antonio police chief’s careful description of his decision in December is likely linked to the tumultuous state of immigration enforcement politics playing out in Texas, which, in turn, reflects debates swirling around immigration policies nationwide.
Across the country, and especially in Texas, police chiefs in larger cities have bristled at the Trump administration’s efforts to enlist local police in immigration enforcement — arguing that their officers are not trained to enforce federal law, and that questioning individuals about their immigration statuses erodes important relationships between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.
As noted by The Intercept, these arguments have not stopped senior Trump administration officials from making the case that there should be consequences for public officials who fail to participate in the federal government’s immigration crackdown. In fact, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan called for the imprisonment of municipal lawmakers who do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“We’ve got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes,” Homan said earlier this week.
Despite the Trump administration’s harsh directive, McManus is firm in his “humane approach”, noting in that the July case, when his officers responded to a call regarding suspicious activity surrounding a tractor-trailer truck at a San Antonio Walmart, authorities did not show compassion to those in need:
“The SAPD found dozens of migrant men, women, and children clinging to life. They had been traveling for hours in the sweltering heat; the trailer’s cooling system had not been functioning, and they had shared a single hole in the wall to breathe through. Ten people lost their lives as a result of the July trip. The driver, James Matthew Bradley, was arrested and the SAPD quickly handed the investigation over to ICE’s HSI special agents, and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas handled the prosecution. Survivors of the journey were detained as material witnesses, and were held in the same for-profit jail as the driver.”
The cruel treatment of the witnesses by the Department of Justice and federal investigators became a subject of frustration and outrage from their attorneys.
McManus was not about to let his department make the same mistake again.
“I don’t want to point fingers at any other agency,” he told reporters. “We have a very, very, very good working relationship with HSI and intend to continue having a good relationship.” McManus said he met with the head of HSI in San Antonio that morning to discuss protocols for the handling of similar cases, though he would not say what those protocols include.
McManus said, however, that his department was abiding by an agreement made with local immigrant rights organizations following the July tragedy to utilize a DOJ grant designed to help local law enforcement support victims in similar circumstances. Immigration advocates are hopeful that the police chief’s decision could mark a turn to a more compassionate, victim-centered approach in such cases.