SAN ANTONIO – After San Antonio police on Monday evening discovered more than 40 people dead in a tractor-trailer on the Southwest Side, officials within hours handed off the investigation to federal immigration authorities and took on a support role.
That decision differed immensely from SAPD’s response to a 2017 incident, in which 12 suspected migrants found in a tractor-trailer were interviewed at SAPD headquarters and then released.
The Defenders obtained body-camera footage of the scene and hundreds of pages of court documents following an open records request to the Texas Attorney General’s Office made earlier this year.
The records shed new light on SAPD Chief William McManus’ actions during the Dec. 23, 2017 incident but also raise serious questions about whether federal immigration authorities were properly equipped to even take over the scene.
The decision by McManus to handle the 2017 case at the state level led AG Ken Paxton to file two lawsuits against McManus. The first accused the chief and other city leaders of limiting the enforcement of federal immigration laws, while the second attempted to have McManus removed from his position.
San Antonio City Council this spring voted to approve a $300,000 settlement with the AG’s office. The city, without having to admit fault, agreed to clarify its written policies on cooperating with immigration authorities in exchange for the AG’s office dropping the first suit and its appeal of the suit that attempted to have McManus removed.
A district court judge dismissed that so-called “quo warranto suit” last year, but it was under appeal at the time of the settlement.
‘We are not involving ICE in this investigation’
SAPD body-camera footage released to the Defenders shows McManus at the 2017 scene, dressed in civilian clothing, telling someone on the phone, “So, we are, we are not involving ICE in this investigation.”
Other clips of video show Jonathan Ryan, the then-president and CEO of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), approach the back of a transport van holding several suspected migrants.
In the footage, Ryan tells the suspected migrants in Spanish that immigration is not coming, for them not to be afraid and that SAPD needs their help in a criminal case against the driver of the semi truck.
“His office doesn’t work with immigration. He told immigration that immigration has nothing to do with this case,” said Ryan, as McManus stood next to him.
City officials on Tuesday refused to make anyone available for an interview.
City spokeswoman Laura Mayes repeated a long-held city talking point that city officials cooperated with federal authorities during the 2017 incident.
“SAPD notified Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) soon after the incident was reported. The two drivers were arrested for human smuggling and taken into custody by SAPD. The 12 individuals in the truck were taken to SAPD headquarters for questioning. The HSI agent was present at SAPD headquarters and he was provided access to the 12 individuals. At no time did SAPD restrict or prevent the HSI agent from taking custody of the individuals. SAPD had no legal authority to hold the 12 individuals after they were questioned and the City may have faced legal liability if they had done so,” wrote Mayes.
But a 2021 deposition from the HSI agent who responded to the scene painted a different picture.
Agent Brian Johnson, who has since retired from HSI, testified under oath that McManus was uncooperative and at one point walked away from him.
Johnson testified that he was unable to follow up on possible leads in the case, including whether any crimes had been committed against a minor found in the back of the tractor-trailer, because of a lack of access.
He testified that he was also not comfortable trying to take control of the scene because he was not on the same level as McManus, the police chief of a major city.
But Johnson’s deposition also revealed that he was late coming to the scene, first responding to police headquarters after receiving notification as the on-call agent.
Additionally, staff from ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) never showed up the scene.
Johnson, according to his sworn testimony, had hoped to transfer the migrants to an HSI office on Jackson-Keller.
He testified that even though ERO never arrived at the scene, he was under the impression that SAPD would transfer the suspected migrants to the HSI office instead.
The 12 people were instead interviewed at SAPD headquarters and then released without ever being in federal custody.
Six of the suspected migrants went to a bus station and the other six were taken to a hotel, the records show.
The documents also state that city and federal authorities started discussions on adjusting protocol for incidents like this within days of the suspected migrants being found.
Mayes on Tuesday released the following statement regarding changes to protocol for alerting HSI/ICE following suspected migrant incidents:
“The City of San Antonio clarified in writing what the San Antonio Police Department already does in practice – cooperate with federal immigration authorities. San Antonio will remain a compassionate city as we continue to honor the law, including individual civil rights.”