Tarrant sheriff didn’t bash all immigrants as drunks. But he should be more careful

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn acquired some useful experience Thursday that not all lawmen can claim: He was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and convicted in the court of the fast-moving news cycle.

Waybourn, a Republican, was at the White House for an event defending immigration enforcement. He’s popular among illegal-immigration hardliners, in part because his jail is one of the largest in the country that cooperates with federal authorities to check the immigration status of those arrested.

From a White House lectern, Waybourn said that among the current Tarrant County Jail inmates, 7% are in the country illegally. Some of those, he noted, have multiple arrests for driving while intoxicated. After providing some other information, he said: “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.”

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Some sloppy or too-fast reporting suggested Waybourn was saying that all or many illegal immigrants are “drunks” who are a danger to Tarrant County’s precious youth. No fair reading of his comments suggests he was speaking broadly of anyone beyond habitual drunken drivers. Political opponents pounced, and in a world where too few people read beyond an inflammatory headline, let alone watch the full couple minutes of video, Waybourn was guilty and sentenced to a day of being one of Twitter’s piñatas.

That said, the sheriff should be extremely careful with his words on such a volatile topic. His decision to participate in the 287 (g) program that has county officers doing ICE status checks has roiled Tarrant County immigrants and their allies — including many citizens who don’t want their public officials participating in such a program.

There’s no evidence that immigrants here illegally commit more crimes, or have a higher share of “drunks” endangering children, than native citizens. So Waybourn’s language was unnecessarily inflammatory.

And when you’re speaking from the White House, with Trump administration immigration officials at your side, your words carry tremendous weight. You must be precise. To so many in the world, Tarrant County now looks intolerant. That’s not entirely Waybourn’s fault, but he handed opponents a stick to hit him with.

Waybourn is up for re-election next year, and with Tarrant County trending Democratic, he could be in for a tough fight. He’s walking a line on enforcing the law, keeping a campaign promise and appearing reasonable on a topic that spikes blood pressure on all sides.

His words Thursday didn’t help, even if he was unfairly convicted.

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This story was originally published October 10, 2019 1:50 PM.

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