Sheriff Over ICE

Dem candidates spar over the TCSO role in immigration

Sheriff Over ICE

According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Depart­ment of Homeland Security, since the fall of 2008, more than 169,000 illegal immigrants have been deported, including more than 45,300 who had been flagged as Level 1 criminals – persons convicted of "aggravated felonies," including murder, rape, firearms or drug trafficking – under its Secure Communities program, designed specifically to identify and deport illegal immigrants with serious criminal histories. Although the program won't become mandatory nationwide until next year, more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies across the country are already participating in "S-Comm," which requires that fingerprints of persons booked into local jails be submitted to the feds for comparison against a national FBI database; those fingerprints are also forwarded to ICE to be reviewed for immigration status. The Travis County Sheriff's Office, which runs the local jail system, joined the program in summer 2009; since then, more than 92,000 sets of fingerprints have been run through S-Comm's ID databases. Of those, according to ICE statistics through Jan. 31, print matches have resulted in 2,614 deportations from the county, including of 514 persons labeled as Level 1 offenders.

On its face, the S-Comm program appears to be functioning as designed – creating a way to identify and remove criminal immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. But it has not been without controversy both nationally and locally, particularly after a study released in 2010 charged that 26% of all deportations were of noncriminals. More explosive in Austin was the conclusion by advocates who compiled the study – including the Center for Constitutional Rights and National Day Laborer Organiz­ing Network – that Travis County, at 82%, led all jurisdictions in the deportation of noncriminal immigrants.

The county's role in the program is now assuming central importance in the Demo­cratic primary race for Travis County sheriff, where retired Austin Police Depart­ment Lt. John Sisson is mounting a campaign to unseat incumbent Sheriff Greg Hamil­ton as the county's top cop.

At issue, says Sisson (and other foes of S-Comm) is that the federal program effectively mandates local law enforcement to act as an arm of ICE. The TCSO is not required to participate in the program, Sisson charges, and Hamilton's agreement to do so places many immigrant families at risk of deportation, including those without any violent criminal history. "There's no written agreement between [TCSO] and ICE," says Sisson. "The sheriff is one of the most powerful [law enforcement] agents in Travis County – he can do what he wants."

Hamilton rejects Sisson's charges – he says he is sworn to uphold the law, and that participation in the fingerprint ID program is mandatory. The dispute over immigration policy and the sheriff's role in enforcing federal law has become the central issue in the primary race.

Diversity and Deference

Greg Hamilton
Greg Hamilton

Sisson worked as a correctional officer in the Travis County Jail while attending college. He joined APD in 1978 and rose through the ranks to lieutenant before retiring in 2009. After a brief stint as an investigator with the Texas Workforce Commis­sion, Sisson became a deputy with Precinct 3 Con­stable Richard McCain, where he has worked since October 2009. It wasn't until he was approached by others in law enforcement (including from TCSO, he says) that he decided to run for sheriff. There are several issues compelling him to run, he says, including two related priorities: a lack of diversity in TCSO (particularly in Hamilton's command staff), and TCSO's participation in S-Comm. "It is the same [issue]," he says, "because you want to ask yourself, does he care about the Hispanic community? Or the Asian community? There are about 150,000 immigrants in Travis County – 25 percent are Asian; 51 percent are Hispanic." Yet Hamilton's command staff includes just one black man, two women, and eight white men, Sisson notes; the only Hispanic member of the command staff retired two years ago. "I believe in being fair, and I believe in diversity." And having a command staff that doesn't reflect the community is problematic, he insists, and reinforces his belief that Hamilton is deaf to the community's concerns about S-Comm. Sisson says the S-Comm program here has led to the deportation of noncriminal immigrants, and he believes the sheriff just refuses to acknowledge the degree to which his office is deferring to the feds. Hamil­ton "blames everyone else" and "sugarcoats" the "real truth" of the program, Sisson says.

Detainment Upon Request

There are essentially two facets of S-Comm. First – and not in dispute – is a requirement that all fingerprints made during booking at the jail must be submitted to the feds; Texas counties transmit them to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which sends them to the FBI, which in turn distributes them to other agencies, including ICE. From there, any number of things might happen – a set of prints may be matched to a wanted criminal from another jurisdiction, for example (say, a person arrested in Austin who is found to be wanted for murder in another state), or, ICE may get a hit, matching a set of prints to a person it knows to be living in the country illegally. When that happens, the second part of the program – the more controversial part – kicks in. After getting a hit, ICE may then contact the local sheriff's office, asking officials to place a "hold" on a person to give the feds an opportunity to further vet the person's legal status. Hamilton says that when those requests come in, he is bound to honor them.

Conversely, Sisson says that the local sheriff's office may choose whether to honor the feds' request for a detainer. He argues that local law enforcement has the power to review each individual request and determine whether the person in question has a violent or otherwise significant criminal history before agreeing to honor the immigration hold. The federal regulations, he says, are clear: "It's not mandatory; it is just a request."

Hamilton, Sisson argues, has been honoring all such detainer requests – even when the person in question has been booked for a minor offense, such as minor marijuana possession or driving without a valid license, or has been picked up on a warrant for unpaid tickets. That, Sisson says, dilutes the effectiveness of the program and breeds distrust of police among the immigrant community, thus undermining public safety. If elected sheriff, he says, he would carefully vet each ICE request, making a full review of the person's record before deciding whether to agree to an immigration hold. "If it is somebody with an affiliation with gangs or for murder, robbery, or rape, we will honor that request," he says. "If it is someone without a violent history, we will not."

And whatever happens in the primary, says Sisson, he believes it is important to hold Hamilton's feet to the fire on this issue. "Of course I want to win this race, but what I really want is for people to know the truth. We do not have to hold anyone" for ICE just because the agency asks.

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