By Lisa Maria Garza
GRAPEVINE, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. Immigration authorities signed deals on Monday with 18 of Texas' 254 counties to expand a program that allows jailers at the local sheriffs' office to cooperate with federal authorities in immigration enforcement.
The deal signed at a sheriffs' meeting in suburban Dallas comes as the administration of U.S. Republican President Donald Trump, and Texas, the most populous Republican-controlled state, seek to crack down on so-called "sanctuary cities," places that shield immigrants in the country illegally.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reached what is known as a 287(g) agreement with the counties. The deal trains local agents in the sheriff's offices to check if the people they have in custody may be in violation of U.S. immigration law.
The program has been on the books since 1996 and allows the Department of Homeland Security to enter into formal written agreements with state and local police departments for officers to perform some of the functions of federal immigration enforcement officials.
Acting ICE Director Tom Homan said through the partnership, "each of these counties will be able to identify criminal aliens in their jails and turn them over to ICE, once their criminal process is complete."
The sheriff of Harris County, the most populous county in the state and home to Houston, dropped out of the program earlier this year, saying it cost his office too much in terms of manpower and money.
Many of the 18 counties, which have a total population of about 1.5 million, are near Harris County. Texas has 254 counties and a population of about 28 million.
The new agreement in Texas is for jails but a task force model of the program has been used to allow police on patrol to check on people's immigration status. Civil rights groups contend the method promotes illegal racial profiling.
The Obama administration wound down the task force model and only six new agreements were added between 2012 and 2016, according ICE, part of Homeland Security.
With the addition of the 18 programs in Texas, ICE now has 60 active 287(g) agreements, nearly double the number of programs that were active in 2016.
The mandate to expand the program was outlined in an executive order on immigration enforcement signed just days after Trump took office in January.
One of the new places on the list is Waller County, about 50 miles north of Houston, which gained national attention after a black woman arrested after a traffic stop died in a jail suicide. The 2015 incident stoked a simmering debate about racial bias in policing.
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)