Then There's This: Our Ill-Advised Relationship With ICE

Travis County runs a brisk deportation business, as other entities call it quits

An audience member makes a statement at the candidates forum.
An audience member makes a statement at the candidates forum. (Courtesy of Arielle Lewis-Zavala/AIRC)

Whoever wins the County Judge race – and the Precinct 2 Commissioner race, too, for that matter – should immediately put into action their campaign pledge to stick an ice pick in one of the most inhumane policies to ever come out of the Sheriff's Depart­ment. Since 2009, the department has participated in a federal deportation program known as Secure Communities, or "S-Comm," which was originally intended to weed out hardened criminals, but instead has turned into a villainous exercise in striking terror in the households of hardworking immigrant families across Travis County.

The on-again, off-again lightning rod of a political issue usually only flares up during an election cycle, and then drops off the public radar (present company included) during the off years. Let's not let that happen again, okay?

This is the point local immigrant rights activists sought to make in organizing last Saturday's candidates forum – possibly the most substantive and well-attended of all the political forums held this year. The event drew a crowd of more than 200, packing the sanctuary of Faith Pres­byterian Church in South Austin. Many in the crowd wore earbuds that enabled English and Spanish speakers to understand each other as translators in the foyer spoke in hushed tones into separate microphones. Organizers included the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and several other like-minded groups (see "County Candidates Vow to End S-Comm," p.18).

Placards taped to the wall of the sanctuary listed the number of governing entities that have already pulled out of S-Comm, without consequences, including Berkeley, Chicago, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., as well as Alameda and Santa Clara counties in California, and at least three other counties.

You may be asking why liberal Austin and Travis County would, for all intents and purposes, turn a blind eye to the sheriff's continued participation in a program that rips families apart, leaves kids without a parent or breadwinner, and creates enormous emotional trauma for those left behind. The adverse side effects stifle a child's ability to perform well in school; many stop attending altogether. One nonprofit leader told the Saturday crowd that there are kids on suicide watch at Austin State Hospital because they don't have the coping mechanisms to deal with a family member who's suddenly, inexplicably deported for an offense as minor as a broken taillight. Advocates say 73% of Austin-area residents who are deported have no criminal record.

Voluntary or Mandatory?

Sheriff Greg Hamilton, in fact, was forced to defend his participation in the program run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when he ran for re-election in 2012. His Democratic primary opponent, John Sisson, hammered Hamilton on this issue, but the well-funded and otherwise popular sheriff nonetheless won another term by more than 60%. It's unknown whether he'll pursue another four years when his term ends in 2016.

Only one candidate, County Judge hopeful Sarah Eckhardt, pointed out the obvious: "If the sheriff does not change his position [on S-Comm], the real power is with the voters." The candidates, for the most part, conceded that the only power the Commissioners Court holds over the sheriff's department is by way of the budget – running S-Comm isn't cheap, because the feds only pick up part of the tab, while taxpayers underwrite the remainder. While there have been 4,280 deportations from Travis County since 2009 – an average of 19 people per week – a fact sheet prepared by local immigrant rights groups draws on 2011 county data to support their claims of taxpayer dollars being used to keep the jail filled. That year, 3,094 people were held on ICE detainers. Their average length of stay was just under 32.5 days, totaling over 58,693 jail days at a personnel cost of $60.59 per day. All told, the detainers created an additional detention cost of more than $3.5 million, and the federal government reimbursed the county just $683,501.

Hamilton defends his stance on the issue; he told the Chronicle's Jordan Smith in 2012 that his department's participation in the federal fingerprint ID program – the first step in determining the immigration status of a person who's been arrested – is mandatory. But critics say he's not legally bound to go beyond the call of duty and hold individuals – no matter how minor the alleged offense – for transfer to ICE authorities.

If it is indeed mandatory, why haven't the feds cracked down on major metropolitan areas that have already severed ties with ICE?

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News, Travis County Sheriff's Department, immigration, Secure Communities, S-Comm, Austin Immigrant Rights Association, Texas Civil Rights Project, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Greg Hamilton, Sarah Eckhardt, John Sisson

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