When Olvin Oliva came to America as a teenager, he wanted a better life.
That included moving forward with his education.
The 22-year-old said his home country of Honduras will always be in his heart, and America has provided him with opportunities he never dreamed of.
But those dreams were in danger a couple years ago after he landed in jail.
He said he tried to visit a family member in jail but was told visitation was on another day. He said he got in the car to leave the jail and was pulled over shortly after, allegedly for not using his signal light. He later was booked into the jail and picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Since he went to school in America and had no criminal background, he was given a bond, Oliva said. He paid the bond and was waiting on a permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“It's hard for those who have families here. … You try to do the best you can,” he said.
Oliva is not alone in his story. East Texas counties routinely work with ICE when someone is brought into jail and suspected of being foreign born and accused of a crime.
In Rusk County, a program that strives to ensure the prosecution of illegal immigrants — and their possible deportation — is off to a good start, according to the District and County Attorney's Office.
Under the program, launched in February 2011, office manager Shelly Stephens serves as a liaison between the Rusk County District and County Attorney's Office and ICE.
“After the judge sets the bond, and the person is able to bond out, instead of bonding out to the street, ICE transports the person to Dallas where the person will meet with a federal judge,” Ms. Stephens wrote in an email. “Once the person has either satisfied his or her charges or made bond, ICE has 48 hours, excluding holidays and weekends, to pick the person up.
"The federal judge may decide to allow the person to bond out with ICE until his immigration hearing as well. The person may also just be sent to his or her respective countries depending on (the) federal judge.”
Last year, 130 Rusk County inmates completed questionnaires, which led to the deportation of 62 foreign-born people accused of crimes in Rusk County, Ms. Stephens said. There were 52 foreign-born people not deported after jail booking, and 16 were determined to be born in the United States or naturalized, according to a news release.
The release states that based on questionnaires, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras are the top home countries for these accused of committing crimes in Rusk County. Other countries listed in the news release include the Dominican Republic, Fiji Islands, China and India.
Ms. Stephens said there is no type of profiling used, and the people must be suspected of being foreign born and accused of a crime.
Once someone is in jail and fills out a questionnaire, she said, whether the person speaks English is one thing they look at. She said a lot of times illegal immigrants also won't have a driver's license, or they provide identification from another country. For instance, if someone accused of a crime presents a Mexican ID, they will look into it, she said.
“It's really not a profile. … We've got to have a reason,” she said. “It's not like we're choosing or picking certain ones because of ethnicity.”
She also recalled a man, likely in his 20s, who came into the jail and had a federal detainer on him.
“He was very well-spoken, polite. They picked him up in our office. It was devastating for him. He came over (to America) as a kid but never got citizenship,” she said. He was deported in June or July 2011.
Ms. Stephens said that in 2012, three illegal immigrants were convicted of sexual offenses against a child. Those three individuals will be deported after they complete their prison sentences, she said.
Rusk County District and County Attorney Micheal Jimerson called the program a “win-win” and commended Ms. Stephens as well as jailers, former Sheriff Danny Pirtle and current Sheriff Jeff Price.
In the past, if a suspected illegal immigrant committed a serious crime in Rusk County and bonded out of jail, the person was back in their home country and never faced justice, Jimerson said, but now they can be caught when they're about to bond out, and a detainer can be placed on them.
Gilbert Urbina, who is with the Hispanic American Association and represents people before ICE, said he believes Rusk County is giving individuals due process by allowing them to turn their information over to ICE.
“By them answering questions, it allows them to continue through the process, and if they merit any type of relief, then the opportunity will come (up) before an immigration judge …” he said. “There's ample ways for them to plead their case, so I don't think it's (bad).”
In Smith County, the process is similar.
If Homeland Security has a record of the individual, he said a hold will be placed on the person, and ICE can take appropriate action. But if there is not information on the person, the process ends, and he/she is held in jail on their alleged charges, Little said.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said holds occur on a frequent basis in the county, and his office has an investigator who is on a Homeland Security task force and can search background data to see if a person is here legally or not.
Little said if an officer stops someone for a traffic violation, a great deal of information can be revealed in an interview.
For instance, he said authorities will separate people in vehicles, and the two people may not know each other and have conflicting accounts of where they've been and why.
“It grows from there,” he said.
But Longview attorney Jose Sanchez questioned whether counties always use equal opportunity when it comes to finding out if a person is legally in the country or not.
“I think there's an issue as far as how they're going to go about figuring that out,” he said.
Sanchez said he believes counties report information to ICE because they want to have a good relationship with the agency and look like they're keeping the county safe.
Additionally, he said he believes too many resources and too much taxpayer money is being used when the person is held in jail and not able to bond out.
However, he said he also believes that illegal immigrants committing heinous crimes need to be reported.
“The whole idea is a public safety issue. When you're talking about people committing crimes — non-U.S. citizens committing crimes — we take active part in removing them from not only the streets but country,” Rusnok said. (It's about) “helping to make communities safer.”
Rusnok said some of the highest priorities for ICE are those with serious criminal convictions as well as fugitives who were ordered removed and have not complied, and people who have re-entered the U.S. after being deported.
“Our limited resources allow us to detain and deport so many people. Therefore, we want to focus on those,” Rusnok said.
He added, “Each case is different. They're all handled on a case-by-case basis.”
Rusnok said the more agencies work together to combat crime, the safer it is for communities.