Immigrants' rights advocates applauded last week's action by City Council, repudiating Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton's participation in the federal "Secure Communities" initiative. And in the wake of Council's action, some Travis County Commissioners – the Commissioners Court oversees the sheriff's office – are readying their own resolution calling for an end to county compliance.
In a 7-0 vote, Council adopted a resolution seeking to end municipal use of county booking facilities and resources until the initiative is terminated. Under S-Comm, the county shares detainees' information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and holds them at ICE's request, setting the stage for deportation for felons and misdemeanants alike. (See "Cold as ICE")
"We're very happy the City Council has taken leadership on this issue," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. "We are optimistic this is a good sign." Ranjana Natarajan, clinical professor and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the UT-Austin School of Law, echoed Libal. In an April letter signed by 125 law professors, attorneys, and organizations, Natarajan joined other legal experts in urging Travis County commissioners to end S-Comm participation.
"The passage of the Austin City Council resolution further demonstrates the serious legal and public safety problems with the S-Comm program," Natarajan said. "This is a clear sign to the Travis County sheriff to reconsider his decision to continue his participation in this voluntary program." The Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition was particularly buoyed by the city's declared aim to end its interlocal agreement with the county until S-Comm participation ends. "This puts intense pressure on Travis County to end the program," AIRC officials said in a prepared statement. "The sheriff may now have to choose between losing city of Austin funding for the jail or ending S-Comm." (However, that Council action might prove difficult; more than 70% of local arrests are within city limits, so devising alternative procedures and venues could be a daunting task.)
But S-Comm enforcer Hamilton was not swayed by Council's action. Asked for Hamilton's response, spokesman Roger Wade sent only a terse email: "I spoke to the sheriff and we have no reaction to the City Council's action. We will continue to work with ICE."
Despite that non-response, Hamilton quickly turned to a media outlet friendlier to his position – personally calling into the Austin's Morning News program hosted by Mark Caesar, Sam Cox, and Ed Clements on conservative talk-radio KLBJ-AM. The conversation with Hamilton began:
Caesar: "You heard what the City Council wants you to do. Will you stop cooperating with the ICE authorities?"
Hamilton: "That's a negative."
Soon, the chat devolved into a derisive exchange perpetuating the ugliest of Mexican stereotypes, while mocking the reality of broken families left in S-Comm's wake.
Cox: "What I'm sayin' is, there was a listener called in a while ago and said that he knew personally that a ton of the male illegals that come across had families in Mexico and come up here and have families. So which family are you going to break up? You already have one broken up in Mexico. Now they come up here and you're going to break the one up here. Which one's the most important?"
Hamilton: [laughing] Is that rhetorical?
Libal expressed shock at Hamilton's intransigence, at a time when even politically conservative sheriffs elsewhere have opted out of voluntary S-Comm compliance, given the initiative's shaky constitutional grounds. "Republican sheriffs in California, Colorado, Kansas, rural Oregon, have said they're not going to violate people's rights and honor ICE detainers," Libal said. "It's very frustrating that the sheriff continues to demonize the immigrant community and perpetuate outright lies about them."
Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret J. Gómez said she's helping Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe to draft commissioners' proposal in opposition to S-Comm. "The judge is in the process of writing a resolution for the county, and I've given him some data for him to write that resolution," Gómez said.
Biscoe confirmed that, but said it won't be presented as an agenda item for another two to three weeks. "It's a difficult matter," he said. "I'm updating my research to figure out what language we can get behind and persuade the sheriff to adopt it. I would give a copy to the sheriff, and give him an opportunity to respond in respect to it." He said he plans to allow various community groups – both in favor and opposed to S-Comm – between 15 and 20 minutes to air their views before commissioners take action. "We would give every side an opportunity to share their opinion, but it'll be two to three weeks before it's ready," he said.
"I can chat with one ... member of the commissioner's court without violating the Open Meetings Act," he added, "and will work on it with Commissioner Gómez." Biscoe said he wants to be precise in drafting a measure that could be an achievable middle ground, but said that won't be easy. "I will tell you, I've been looking at this matter for the past six or seven months, and it's not getting easier. It's getting harder."
But even a carefully worded resolution from commissioners might not persuade the sheriff, Gómez said: "It's very frustrating. It really is. We're doing the feds' job for them when we have enough to do at the county level. I'm not interested in doing the state's job for them, much less the feds' job."
By law, the Commissioner's Court does not execute departmental policies, Gómez explained, meaning in practice that commissioners can address substantive changes in the way the sheriff's office operates only in setting the department's budget. Even then, the sheriff's authority is ruled by statute, she added, and further power for commissioners to effect change would require amendments to the state constitution.
So for now, Gómez said, the sheriff has the ultimate and absolute discretion in running S-Comm: "We may disagree with what he's doing, but he's the ultimate authority on the jail."
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