While speaking about the jail population that includes undocumented immigrants, drunken drivers and repeat offenders, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill E. Waybourn said that if released, “these drunks will run over your children and they will run over my children.”
His comments about DWI offenders Thursday came during a White House press briefing with ICE Director Matt Albence, when the sheriff expressed concern for what would happen if repeat offenders were released.
“This morning we had 4,200 inmates. Out of that, 7% were illegal aliens. And they were being held for such offenses as murder, sexual assault of children — there was about 70 of them. And there were robbers in there and kidnappers and people who committed arson and people who were DWI,” Waybourn said.
Waybourn referenced a September ruling by a federal judge in California that made it more difficult for immigration officials to detain migrants longer.
“It will put our communities in jeopardy,” he said. “Of those people that we have in custody, we know for a fact that 72% of them are repeat offenders, so if we have to turn them loose, or they get released, they’re coming back to your neighborhood and my neighborhood. These drunks will run over your children, and they will run over my children.
“And if that happens, I know that you would want, and certainly I would want for you, the full force of the law. And immigration is part of that full force.” Waybourn said during the briefing.
His comments quickly drew reaction from critics.
“It is appalling that a man with a badge and gun like Sheriff Waybourn would make such ignorant and twisted racist statements influenced by his far right-wing ideology,” Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said in a statement. “We know that in Texas, the data shows that native-born residents are much more likely to be convicted of a crime than immigrants.
“This sheriff needs to resign and apologize for his bigoted comments immediately. The domestic terrorist attacks in El Paso and Gilroy have shown that this rhetoric can have deadly consequences.”
Vance Keyes, who will seek the Democratic nomination for sheriff next year, said Waybourn’s comments are “an embarrassment” to Tarrant County,
“All drunk drivers pose a threat to our communities,” Keyes said in a statement. “The Sheriff makes an unsubstantiated association between intoxicated drivers and undocumented residents. The labeling of an entire group of people with such rhetoric is reckless and only serves to divide our diverse community.
“We need to bring balance to the Sheriff’s office.”
Waybourn said he knows about the danger migrants are fleeing from when they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I understand that many of these migrants come across that river down there in Texas looking for a better day, for something better for their family and I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” Waybourn said. “But the problem is, the very people that they were fleeing who preyed upon them, came with them. And that’s who we’re trying to initially eliminate out of our country.”
When asked for a response to the White House comments, Waybourn spokesman David McClelland said a review of the jail numbers shows that nearly 25% of immigrants in the jail face DWI charges or are repeat DWI offenders.
“We believe DWI is a very serious charge, and any time a person chooses to drive under the influence, they run the risk of killing or seriously injuring members of our community,” he wrote in an email. “By prosecuting repeat offenders to the fullest extent of the law, we help keep our communities safer.”
Some Democratic leaders in Tarrant County quickly took to social media to respond to Waybourn’s comments.
“This is the kind of ignorant, irresponsible fear-mongering rhetoric that creates hate & division,” Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, tweeted. “Has Sheriff Waybourn learned nothing in the aftermath of El Paso tragedy? No elected official should say things like this, especially in a county as diverse as Tarrant.”
Following the shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead in an attack targeting Hispanics, state leaders faced criticism for language they’ve used in the past that some have said stoked anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant attitudes.
“Immigrants are not drunks, and they commit crime at a far lower rate than the rest of the population, but Sheriff Waybourn will not let facts get in the way of cozying up to our inept president,” Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement. “His comments, thoughts, and policies make Tarrant County less safe by pushing the immigrant community further into the shadows and emboldening others to embrace racist and harmful ideologies.”
Romero called on elected officials to condemn Waybourn’s comments, warning of potential violence to the Latino community.
“Wow! This is coming from one of the top law enforcement officials in Tarrant County; someone who is supposed to be impartial while carrying out their elected duties,” Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, wrote.
And Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth, called on Waybourn to “immediately apologize for his hateful rhetoric.”
Waybourn has long been outspoken about migrants.
Earlier this year, Tarrant County commissions approved, at his request, letting sheriff’s deputies continue to work as ICE agents.
It was a controversial issue, as supporters said the program made Tarrant County safer and opponents say migrants are scared they will be targeted and deported for something as small as a traffic ticket.
Tarrant County is home to more than 2 million people, including about 16% who are foreign born.
Debate and public testimony was heated before officials voted to extend for one year the contract known as 287(g). This refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows law enforcement agencies to work with federal immigration officers and “perform immigration law enforcement functions.”
President Donald Trump pushed for more of these agreements between law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 through an executive order.