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North Bexar neighborhood decries deputy’s alleged immigration enforcement

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Families from a north Bexar County community rallied outside the Bexar County jail Friday. Immigrant families in the community claim they've been targeted by a "rogue sheriff's deputy."

De Leon and several of the families approached the sheriff’s office earlier this month demanding Plate be fired. Bexar County Deputy Chief Dale Bennett confirmed the complaints have sparked an internal affairs investigation, something he says the department is trying to fast track. “The complaint that’s been filed against him, the belief is that he’s actually racially profiling people. … It’s been put on the fast track because, obviously, this is not something the Sheriff wants happening in the department.”

Still, family members and activists working in the area were outraged when they saw Plate back on his usual patrol last week stopping nearby motorists, despite promises from the sheriff's office that Plate would be reassigned elsewhere in the county while the internal investigation was underway. At least two of Plate’s stops escalated into immigration checks last week, de Leon and others in the community claim, and two men were taken into ICE custody — one has already signed his deportation order, while the other says he will fight his case, de Leon said.

The charges against the deputy echo an intense debate that reached a fever pitch during the recent legislative session, when some GOP state lawmakers and Governor Rick Perry pushed hard for so-called “anti-Sanctuary Cities” legislation that would have allowed any local officer to inquire about a person’s immigration status (the bill ultimately failed). Both Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus publicly decried such measures, saying they eroded public trust in local law enforcement and raised the fear of racial profiling within the community. And while charges of racial profiling have dogged other local suburban police forces, most notably with similar allegations against the Balcones Heights Police Department in 2009, the sheriff’s office has largely been sensitive to issues dealing with immigration.

Departments have the option to sign so-called 287(g) agreements with ICE in order to spearhead local immigration enforcement on their own, though only three departments in Texas have done so, none of them local.

Apart from ICE’s already routine immigration checks for those detained in the county lockup, Bennett said department policy is to only call ICE agents out to stops in “extenuating circumstances,” saying, “Typically these guys make hundreds of traffic stops every day, and we certainly don’t make it a habit of asking, ‘Hey, where are you from? Oh, you’re from Ecuador? Oh, well we better call immigration.’ It doesn’t work like that. … There’s got to be some extenuating circumstance that warrants that. Like if we’ve got 20 people crammed into a 10-passenger van, then that’s another story.” Bennett called it a “fluke” that Plate was back on patrol in the community last week and blamed miscommunication within the department, saying Plate was reassigned for certain last week after the families complained again. “I can tell you we’re not going to make it a policy to actually go out and target certain people because, for one, that’s just plain wrong. And two, we just don’t have the resources to commit to those kinds of endeavors.” Following last week’s arrests, immigrant-rights groups and dozens of families from the northern Bexar County community swarmed the steps of the Bexar County jail Friday, demanding the department fire Plate.

“In general, I think the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department has not been a magnet for these types of complaints like other county law enforcement or other local law enforcement,” said Joe Berra, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “If this is an officer that’s trying to take immigration matters into his own hands, I hope that’s something that they decide to discipline or nip in the bud.”
“If we did the immigration thing, we would have a problem here in our jail, for one. And it’s not socially acceptable for us here. It’s a federal job,” Bennett said, adding that the investigation into Plate’s actions could take as long as three months.

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