WICHITA COUNTY (KFDX/KJTL) — Illegal immigration is an issue lawmakers are still working to address, both at the national level in Washington, D.C. and at the state level in Austin.

Gov. Greg Abbott said in his Inauguration Speech on January 17, 2023, that more undocumented immigrants crossed the Texas-Mexico border in 2022 than in any year in the history of the United States.

The issue isn’t a new one for the state, but the immigration issue is having an impact across Texas, even hundreds of miles north of the border, in Wichita County.

It’s a problem Wichita County Sheriff David Duke said he and his deputies have seen first-hand on more than one occasion.

“The amount of illegals we’re catching on [U.S. Highway] 287 and [U.S. Highway] 82 that’s being smuggled through Wichita County,” Sheriff Duke said. “We’ve made several smuggling cases on the individuals involved with it.”

Sheriff Duke said traffickers will now smuggle people across Arizona’s more porous border, then bring people from Arizona, through Wichita County, then on to major Metropolitan areas in the state, and it’s leading to more and more human smuggling cases.

“When we make these traffic stops, we have these people… we’ve seen from 6 to 15 in vehicles and we have to do something with these people,” Sheriff Duke said. “We can’t just put the driver in jail and take his car and put these people on the side of the street somewhere in Wichita Falls or Electra or Iowa Park. it’s not right to do that to those individuals anyway.”

That problem is exactly what the Wichita County Commissioner’s Court is hoping they’re addressing after they approved a Memorandum of Understanding on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, between the Wichita County Sheriff’s Office and Homeland Security.

“Our criminal interdiction unit guys, they’ll become Task Force Officers through Homeland Security through Immigration and Border Patrol,” Sheriff Duke said.

Making deputies Task Force Officers with Homeland Security gives the Sheriff’s Office the ability to begin working on new cases as soon as they discover them.

“This will actually… fall under the umbrella with Homeland Security through Immigration and Border Patrol,” Sheriff Duke said. “So it’ll give us some more authority to do things on our own here.”

The extra workload on those deputies won’t raise taxes for residents of Wichita County.

“What this MOU would do is, for the overtime that our deputies incur, under them, since they’re gonna be task force officers with Homeland Security, they’ll pay the overtime for these individuals,” Sheriff Duke said. “So that money isn’t taken from the Wichita County taxpayers.”

Most importantly, having deputies certified as HSI Task Force Officers allows for more humane treatment of those taken into custody instead of being forced to leave them on the street.

“We’re able to detain those people and Homeland Security and Immigration will come up here and pick them up and take them back to either Abilene or Fort Worth,” Sheriff Duke said. “Once they’re in our facility, they’re going to get the same compliment from food to medical treatment if they need it for those few hours before Border Patrol comes and picks them up.”

Sheriff Duke said for the time being, the WCSO has two deputies trained as HSI Task Force Officers, but they may add a few more if the need arises and the operation grows.