S-Comm Troubles: Not Just for Latinos!

Asian and African immigrants get caught in the sheriff's net, too

Immigration attorney Richard Jung
Immigration attorney Richard Jung (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Secure Communities program – generally perceived as aimed primarily at Hispanic immigrants – is casting a much wider net. The federal initiative adopted by the Travis County Sheriff's Office, which effectively aids immigration officials with deportations, is also capturing an increasing number of Asian immigrants – more often than not, legal residents – in its dragnet. Austin Asian leaders hosted a forum last weekend to educate the population on the controversial program. "We're kind of underground, out of sight and out of mind," attorney Richard Jung said during a recent interview. "I don't want to turn this into an Asian community piece, but S-Comm is emblematic of all the other problems the Asian community faces."

Jung said he is increasingly getting desperate calls at odd hours from clients arrested for minor infractions – misdemeanors normally handled by a magistrate, instead triggering a 48-hour hold, per S-Comm protocol, to give U.S. Immigration and Cus­toms Enforcement time to determine residency status. Jung knows what documentation to provide to secure release from the 48-hour ICE hold – he recently used it to spring four of his clients from detention. "If a client calls me in the middle of the night and I see an ICE detainer, I know what to do," he said. "But you have criminal attorneys who don't know there's a problem."

While many jurisdictions have opted out of S-Comm because of constitutional questions, Travis County has become an aggressive practitioner. Since 2009 (one year after the program's launch), nearly 5,000 county residents have been deported, according to the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Under S-Comm, fingerprints of those arrested for even minor infractions are shared not only with the FBI (as has long been the practice), but with ICE, to determine a person's immigration status. And people who might otherwise be released are jailed while ICE makes its determination, for up to 48 hours – or more, if that falls over weekends or holidays. While most of the attention has been on the impact to the Hispanic population, the program is also having an effect on other minority groups, Jung said. "We're also trying to draw in the African immigrant community to make them more visible on this issue so that people become more aware."

Under S-Comm, ICE detainers are also being placed on members of the growing African population – people from the Congo, West Africa, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. "If you're arrested for 'driving while black' and you happen to be an African immigrant," Jung said, "then ICE is going to put a detainer on you as well, for the same exact set of scenarios for a Latino."

The local chapter of South Asian Amer­i­cans Leading Together hosted an S-Comm forum Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Asian Ameri­can Resource Center. Ranjana Natarajan, director of the civil rights clinic at the UT-Austin Law School, said she found many residents don't understand the potentially life-changing effect of an arrest prompted by S-Comm. "For example," she said, "that people who end up never being charged with a crime may nevertheless be deported, or that the vast majority of people being deported through S-Comm committed or were accused of nonviolent offenses."

"Folks who attended the meeting," she continued, "were interested in learning more, and asked the burning question of why the Travis County Sheriff [Greg Hamil­ton] wants to continue this program when it is voluntary, costly, and raises constitutional problems." According to census data, since 2000, Austin's Asian population has grown 57%; while Asians currently represent only 6% of the local population, the growing numbers suggest greater exposure to S-Comm enforcement.

The sheriff's office recently revised its website to include more information about S-Comm, including "Frequently Asked Questions" addressing specific issues raised in a recent Chronicle story ("Cold as ICE," July 4). Not yet posted is a long-promised list of those placed on ICE detainers reflecting not just undocumented felons ensnared by S-Comm, but those marked for deportation as a result of misdemeanor charges. Research by the AIRC reflects that nearly 75% of detainers issued in the last two years were for people who had never been convicted of any crime.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade said posting the list is taking longer than expected due to a software problem, but that the revamped list would also include racial or ethnic data. "It is taking longer than anticipated but we will have the information up as soon as possible," Wade wrote via email. "The expanded daily list will be added to the website as soon as possible. ... Every person with an ICE detainer will be identified the day the detainer is placed no matter what the level of their charge."

Immigrant rights advocates don't dispute the need to expel undocumented felons, but object to the indiscriminate use of S-Comm to trigger deportation proceedings among even nonviolent offenders, and the 48-hour hold for even minor charges. Jung says the focus of deportation should be on the genuinely criminal element, and a county magistrate should be allowed to handle the rest, under standard procedures.

Until that happens, Jung expects to have to bail out more of his clients. Consider someone arrested on suspicion of a DWI charge, Jung says, whose fingerprints are shared with immigration officials. "ICE only knows two things at this point: the person's name based on whatever identification they have, and that they've been arrested on suspicion of DWI. ... What warrants them to issue a detainer when the judge otherwise would say they can be released, but ICE says no, we want to hold them for two days? On what basis can they do that?

"They don't know if they're undocumented or not. They may have a suspicion, but they haven't gone and checked their records and confirmed it. How do we know they haven't done that? Because they're issuing detainers for people with visas!"

Jung believes S-Comm requires galvanized community reaction. "All the immigrant communities have to coalesce on this, as well as the nonimmigrant members of the community who just think this is wrong."

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S-Comm, Secure Communities, Travis County Sheriff's Office, Richard Jung, ICE, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, South Asian Amer­i­cans Leading Together, Ranjana Natarajan, Greg Hamilton, Asian Americans

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