SAN ANTONIO – The former special agent in charge for the San Antonio office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Monday that the national uproar over ICE's enforcement of the controversial zero-tolerance policy has clouded the other work done by the federal agency.
"The facts are not out there," said Jerry Robinette, who led the San Antonio office of ICE/Homeland Security Investigations from 2008 until his retirement in early 2013.
He pointed out that his former agency enforces over 400 laws, ranging from immigration to high-profile narcotics and financial investigations, a fact that he feels has been lost amid the nationwide protests against ICE after the agents began separating immigrant children from their parents earlier this year.
"There's a rich history of the type of work we've done," said Robinette.
Robinette also had high praise for newly named ICE Acting Director Ronald Vitiello, whose appointment was announced over the weekend.
"Honest, good guy. I think he's going to do fine," said Robinette.
A separate immigration debate, over what role ICE/HSI should have in suspected human smuggling cases, has played out repeatedly in San Antonio the past year.
Last July, 10 people died and 39 more were found at the scene after a sweltering tractor-trailer was found in a Wal-Mart parking lot on the far Southwest Side.
Driver James Bradley was sentenced in April to life in prison, in a case handled by federal investigators including ICE/HSI.
Late last year, records indicate that an HSI agent's repeated requests to question 12 people suspected of entering the country illegally were denied during a human smuggling investigation in the 3500 block of Copeland Drive.
The suspected immigrants were later released by the San Antonio Police Department without being turned over to federal authorities for processing.
The truck's driver, Herbert Nichols, was taken into custody and charged under a state law for smuggling persons.
Although the charge against Nichols is pending, he has been free on a personal recognizance bond since April 3 while awaiting indictment, according to county officials.
SAPD Chief William McManus, who has defended his handling of the case, remains under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office.
The investigation will attempt to determine if McManus violated Senate Bill 4, a state law that requires heads of law enforcement agencies to cooperate with immigration officials in many instances.
SAPD has referred repeated requests from KSAT 12 to interview McManus about his handling of the incident to the city attorney's office, citing the ongoing state investigation.
City officials have previously said the San Antonio Police Officers Association is behind the continued push to have the chief investigated, pointing out that multiple complaints sent to the AG's office originated from the same email address.
Robinette said Monday that McManus and other local heads of law enforcement agencies are in an untenable position.
"I think that's political pressure. I think it's coming from the top down. I don't think their hearts are in that, but they gotta do what they're told to do," said Robinette.
City attorney Andy Segovia released the following statement Monday afternoon:
The investigations referenced each had substantially different factors and circumstances, but our approach to these investigations has always been to cooperate with ICE and comply with detainer requests. On Dec. 23, the HSI agent, by his own account, at no time exercised his authority to detain the individuals. With respect to the comments made by Mr. Robinette, there have been significant changes since he retired from service. We have an established communications protocol with HSI, and will continue to assist and cooperate with HSI and other federal authorities.
During a third suspected human smuggling incident involving a pulled-over tractor-trailer near Broadway and Loop 410 last month, ICE/HSI investigators were called to the scene by SAPD.
Fifty-four people suspected of entering the country illegally were later taken into federal custody and the driver was charged under federal human smuggling statutes.