Splendora police raise concerns over release of immigrants tied to smuggling investigation

Police in the Montgomery County town of Splendora are asking for better federal oversight of immigrants who are believed to have been smuggled into the United States. The concern comes after police said they recently had to release a group of immigrants they believe are in the country illegally.

Splendora police said they’ve seen an uptick in both human and drug smuggling on Highway 59 over the last two years. Last week, officers pulled over an SUV crammed with people who all told officers they paid someone to smuggle them into the US and were heading to cities in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Indiana.

“It was learned that it was human trafficking, obviously, going on,” said Police Chief Wally Wieghat.

Wieghat says the driver was arrested on drug possession charges, but officers eventually had to release the passengers.

“We carried them to the Wal-Mart where there’s food, water, phones, and stuff like that. All of them said they had numbers they could contact and people come get them,” said Wieghat.

Wieghat said when his officers called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to let them know about the arrest, they were told if the passengers didn’t have any warrants or prior immigration holds, then release them. Wieghat said all were gone from the area within six hours.

“I think they should be at least identified, put in the system somewhere so we know what we’re dealing with when people like this come across the border,” said Wieghat. “I’d like to see some type of federal oversight where we could carry them to Conroe and at least have them processed, have them identified.”

The chief said this is the sixth time his officers released immigrants under similar circumstances, even though the drivers have been arrested on human trafficking charges.

Wieghat said, in some cases, the people hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and officers had to buy them food. The chief said they always release individuals in safe areas with access to food, water, bathrooms, and phones. He said they are never left on the side of the road.

“We’ve always been told they don’t have the manpower; they’re all tied up on the border,” said Wieghat. “I know they got their hands full at the border, but we also got our hands full down here. It’s a major trafficking route up and down 59 here.”

It’s not uncommon for immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally to be released from custody after they’ve been processed by federal agents and assigned a date in immigration court.

In the Splendora case, Wieghat said all his officers can do is run their fingerprints to make sure they don’t have any warrants for their arrest. Wieghat adds his officers don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

“We have no way of keeping records track, no way of verifying the information they’re even giving us is accurate,” said Wieghat.

When KPRC 2 contacted ICE about these concerns, a Homeland Security Investigations spokesperson told us Splendora police contacted ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center and not HSI Houston.

The HSI official said ICE will be reaching out to Splendora police to make sure they have contact information to request direct support in the future, and they are reviewing the latest incident to make sure there are no communication gaps going forward.

An HSI spokesperson also sent the following statement to KPRC 2:

“Regardless of nationality, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the individual merits and factors of each case.

“ICE officers make associated decisions and apply prosecutorial discretion in a responsible manner, informed by their experience as law enforcement professionals and in a way that best protects against the greatest threats to the homeland.”

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”