The Austin Chronicle

Travis Co. Jail Immigration Fracas Hits Commissioners Court

By Patricia J. Ruland, February 15, 2008, News

Travis County Commissioners Court convened long past quitting time Tuesday afternoon to deliberate the Sheriff's Office's recent decision to provide U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforce­ment with office space in the jail, with county officials claiming they never dreamed the arrangement would cause such a fuss and immigrant activists countering that it's an out-of-character betrayal of the minority community.

An indignant Sheriff Greg Hamilton disputed the alleged nefariousness of the plan, insisting the Sheriff's Office is merely providing an old desk and a tiny room so ICE agents won't have to stand at a counter to process deportation paperwork, that it is his prerogative as sheriff to delegate jail resources, and that the Sherrif's Office is legally obligated to cooperate with ICE and other law enforcement. Hamilton added he has excelled in reaching out to minorities – after which point commissioners lamented his "defensiveness."

For decades, federal agents have visited the jail daily, to check booking sheets for inmates who self-report that they were not born in the U.S. With permanent digs, however, ICE will literally be able to sit and wait for Travis Co. inmates and implement its far-reaching, funding-flush Criminal Alien Program. Even now, ICE is placing more and more county defendants, who would ordinarily bond out, on indefinite detainer. According to activists, legal residents are being held, which is unconstitutional. Attorney Nicole True cautioned also that detained defendants might plead guilty because it's hard to convince ICE they're legal from jail; furthermore, ICE doesn't inform undocumented immigrants of possible deportation relief. Activists also slammed Travis Co. for effectively enabling ICE's profiling tactics, which are "notoriously sordid," said Jim Harring­ton, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

So, would any strong-arm insensitivity bleed into local practices? One Latino speaker from out of town recounted how a police officer stopped his car, then said to a fellow passenger "Where'd you get those [papers], a flea market?" Activists also braced the county for more inmate lawsuits, for which ICE will assume no responsibility.

So, what's in it for the county? Well, Sherrif's Office officials said the department sure appreciates the $1.2 million ICE pays in fees. After executive session, the court passed a motion to encourage the sheriff and the public to engage in dialogue.

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