Tarrant County deputies, officials clash with protesters over ICE enforcement in jails

Sheriff’s deputies clashed with protesters at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, almost a year after Tarrant County agreed to indefinitely renew a plan to stay in a federal program that lets sheriff’s deputies work as ICE agents.

ICE out of Tarrant County, an organization dedicated to eradicating the federal 287(g) program, showed up at the meeting with a handful of members asking the commissioners to consider ending the program because they said it creates fear, mistrust and anxiety among immigrant communities. Fewer than 10 appeared at the meeting. The ICE policy was not on the agenda, so commissioners could not respond.

But, when the last member spoke, they broke out in chant as they made their way to exit.

“Judge Glen Whitley, turned your back!”

“Gary Fickes, turned your back!”

“J.D. Johnson, turned your back!”

“Fight’s not over, we’ll be back!”

Immediately, county sheriffs escorted them out. The group claims at least one of its members was shoved. While the chants started and the members were taken out, County Judge Glen Whitley said if it was legal, he wanted to dish out citations to the members for disturbing a public meeting and asked if there was a way to stop them from attending meetings altogether.

Commissioner Devan Allen expressed concerns that members could be wrongfully cited for exercising their First Amendment right.

Deputies could be heard discussing the possibility of jailing the protesters. The ICE policy has been in place since 2017, when Sheriff Bill Waybourn took office. The commissioners have since voted along party lines once a year to renew the program. But on June 16, 2020, officials instead renewed it indefinitely, with the caveat that they would still review the program.

So far, no plans to review the program have been made publicly available.

Under the Texas Penal Code, a person commits a class B misdemeanor if they intentionally “prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession, or gathering” or they “obstruct or interfere with the meeting, procession, or gathering by physical action or verbal utterance.”

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the chant could be seen as disorderly conduct and citations could happen, but it would be extreme and difficult to ban people unless it becomes a common occurrence.

Once outside, about four deputies approached the group, and one of them started to record a video of the protesters. Members recorded back. The deputies then returned to the courthouse.

“What happened just now is a continuation of their tactics they have used to try to silence us,” said Jonathan Guadian of ICE out of Tarrant.

On Whitley’s call for citations, Guadian said it was “concerning, but not surprising” and expressed that they were video-recorded so the deputies could identify them and come after them after they dispersed.

Kassandra Dobbs, a member of ICE out of Tarrant, said being escorted and then recorded by the deputites was especially scary because it was a small group of mostly women. She added that it would be unjust if they were issued citations when they kept their demonstration peaceful.

“We were not being physical. We were not being aggressive. We were chanting,” Dobbs said.

She and Guadian don’t believe they disrupted the meeting.

Tarrant County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.