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Texas sheriff refuses to help feds guard migrant children tent city, saying ‘it’s wrong’

This temporary shelter site is about 20 miles east of El Paso. The site can house hundreds of unaccompanied children in its air-conditioned canvas tents. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
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The El Paso County sheriff prohibited his deputies from working off-duty at a temporary shelter housing migrant children, saying he refused to support the Trump administration’s “unjust” policy of separating families at the border.

Sheriff Richard Wiles received a phone call on Friday from a local Department of Homeland Security representative asking if his deputies could work off-duty at the shelter site, a tent city about 20 miles east of El Paso at the Tornillo-Marcelino Serna port of entry. The camp was housing migrant children who entered the country unaccompanied but expected to receive children who were forcibly separated from their families, Wiles said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Law enforcement officers often moonlight at second jobs, but Wiles has final say in approving off-duty employment for his deputies.

“I told them absolutely not. I think it’s wrong,” Wiles said of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in the forced separations of families. “It’s not consistent with the values of the sheriff’s office.”

Wiles knew that if he agreed to allow his office to help the federal government at this site, the “El Paso community would have an understanding that we support that policy, which we don’t.”

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order reversing this policy, ending family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the order does not resolve the situation for the more than 2,300 children who have already been housed in facilities separate from their parents. Administration officials told The Washington Post the executive order did not stipulate that the children would be immediately reunited with their families.

Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups argue the order is an effort by the administration to incarcerate families together indefinitely.

The El Paso County sheriff is among a growing list of law enforcement officers and elected leaders who have protested the Trump administration amid the ongoing border crisis.

Harris County, Tex., Sheriff Ed Gonzalez called separating families at the border “an affront to American values.” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo ferociously condemned the policy on Twitter, calling it “oppressive, inhumane, unGodly.” Chris Magnus, the police chief of another border city, Tucson, wrote that the practice raised “troubling questions” for police chiefs who cooperate with immigration enforcement. “Is this consistent with the oath you took to serve & protect?” Magnus said. “Is this humane or moral?”

But Wiles’s refusal to assist the government at a migrant children’s shelter is a concrete example of a law enforcement leader taking a firm stand against the government. Texas Monthly called it “one of the most forceful steps yet” from law enforcement critical of the Trump administration’s practice.

In addition, several major U.S.-based airlines on Wednesday demanded the government refrain from using their planes to transport migrant children separated from their families, saying the policy did not align with their values.

Robert Horstman, president of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputies Association, told KFOX14 the deputies stand by their sheriff’s decision.

In 2016, El Paso sheriff deputies agreed to moonlight at a shelter at Fort Bliss set up temporarily for hundreds of unaccompanied minors who had crossed the border.

“The purpose of that security was to protect those kids who had come over the border but were not with their parents,” Wiles said. But the sheriff refused to help assist an encampment for children who were forcibly taken from their parents.

“We’re talking about kids here, that did nothing more than come across the border with a parent or some adult,” Wiles said. “We wanted to make sure that we were not part of that.”

“Local and county law enforcement do not have the training and resources to perform that function and it breaks down a level of trust between the community and the law enforcement officers,” Wiles said. About 80 percent of the population in El Paso County is of Hispanic heritage. “We’re very dependent on a close working relationship to keep the community safe.”

The federal official who contacted him for help “kind of indicated that we were leaving them in a bind,” Wiles said. But his office later found out that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which helps run the shelter, has contracts with private security companies, Wiles said.

The site can house hundreds of children in its air-conditioned canvas tents, but it is unclear exactly how many are there. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), a candidate for the U.S. Senate who attended a protest outside the Tornillo tent city during the weekend, told the Texas Tribune he learned there  were 200 minors in the center as of Sunday, 20 percent of whom were separated from their parents.

Wiles said his county cooperates with the federal government on a number of public safety issues related to immigration, including honoring ICE detainer requests in the jail.

Across Texas, such collaboration is now required — the governor signed a bill last year that effectively bans “sanctuary” jurisdictions in the state, imposing costly fines and even jail time on officials who refuse to cooperate with U.S. immigration agents.

But in the case of the Tornillo tent city, “it’s not a public safety issue,” Wiles said. “These are not criminals being held. These are children.”