The Austin Chronicle

At S-Comm Forum, Both Sides Dig In

By Amy Kamp, October 20, 2014, 3:00pm, Newsdesk

While no progress toward a consensus was made at last week’s forum on Secure Communities, it did serve the purpose of highlighting just how contentious the issue truly is.

The forum, organized by the Travis County Democrats and moderated by TCDP Political Director Kristian Caballero, featured Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, TC Major Darren Long, ACLU of Texas’ Satinder Singh, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition Executive Director Alejandro Caceres, Amelia Ruiz Fischer of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Grassroots Leadership Executive Director Bob Libal.

Immigrant rights advocates have united against Secure Communities, or S-Comm, an agreement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement agencies that allows ICE to request 48-hour “detainers” of people taken into custody. The extra 48 hours give ICE time to decide whether to seek the “removal,” i.e., deportation, of inmates it believes are guilty of immigration violations. S-Comm is controversial because the requests do not have to meet the standard of probable cause, which has led some courts to declare the practice unconstitutional, and some jurisdictions to opt out of the program.

Hamilton has long claimed that his hands are tied when it comes to enforcing Secure Communities, and he continued to do so Wednesday night. He pointed out the TCSO cooperates with a variety of law enforcement agencies, not just ICE. (Of course, other law enforcement agencies, such as other local jurisdictions, are required to meet the standard of probable cause when they ask for a warrant.)

Caceres said that, in the past, Hamilton had said, “If you prove to me that it’s not mandatory, then I will stop.” Although several major jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and New Orleans, have stopped complying with S-Comm, the sheriff said that those jurisdictions still represented a small fraction of the total jurisdictions in the country, and none of them are in Texas. Caceres expressed frustration with that reasoning, saying that Travis County should lead the rest of the state in resisting S-Comm. Hamilton also refused to consider the court cases that had cast doubt on S-Comm’s constitutionality, saying that the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Texas, has not weighed in.

On the one hand, this can be seen as evidence of the sheriff’s recalcitrance in the face of growing opposition to the program, including a recent City Council resolution disavowing it. However, it may be possible that the sheriff meant to make a point about how such action might be received throughout the state of Texas, at a time when the governor and Senator Ted Cruz compete as to who can be the toughest on undocumented immigrants. (Hamilton's point about the Fifth Circuit is less compelling, since the Orleans Parish falls under the Fifth Circuit’s purview, yet has successfully stopped complying with most civil detainer requests since August 2013.)

Perhaps an even greater obstacle to consensus than the tortuous complexities of the law is the high level of emotion the topic inspires in proponents and detractors alike. It’s clear that Hamilton and his supporters feel as though he’s being personally attacked, a feeling that was likely reinforced when an audience member shouted at him, “You just don’t like Mexicans!” The sheriff’s attitude throughout the forum was defensive and dismissive – at one point he addressed Caceres as “Andrew” – and he accused S-Comm opponents of being “disingenuous with the way this program operates.” He argued that they should be focusing on reforming immigration law rather than fighting enforcement of the law.

However, those on the other side know that immigration reform is a long shot, and they see the effects that both the threat and reality of deportations have on the immigration community. To them, S-Comm is a net that ensnares not only criminals, but any undocumented immigrant who comes into contact with local law enforcement. Much of Wednesday night’s debate, which devolved into shouting more than once, was about who, exactly, is being held and deported? Are they hardened criminals, drunk drivers, and domestic abusers? Or are they people who were stopped for traffic violations, witnesses to crimes, and domestic violence victims who were fingerprinted during the course of investigations?

Of course, that argument, as Libal pointed out, distracts from the fact that those being deported often have yet to be convicted of the crimes with which they’ve been charged. Attorney Virginia Raymond stepped up to the mic to tell the sheriff about a client of hers who was ultimately deported even though the charges against him had been dropped. Later, she told the Chronicle in an email that her client “had left Honduras years earlier after threats on his life. He asked for protection under the withholding of removal (deportation) and the Convention Against Torture, but the judge said that because this young man had been in the U.S. so long, the young man’s fear of being threatened, tortured, or killed was not likely to be fulfilled.”

After the forum ended, Hamilton said that he would continue to work on finding a solution that both sides could agree on. Caceres said that he would like to see the TCSO only honor ICE detainer requests that came with a warrant.

Video is courtesy of the Travis County Democratic Party.

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