S-Comm "Roll Calls" Raise New Questions
Data released leads to more questions than answers
Responding to public pressure for greater transparency, the Travis County Sheriff's Office recently began compiling and posting on the county website detailed daily "roll call" lists of who's being held in its jail facilities on immigration detainers pursuant to the federal "Secure Communities" initiative. The new lists – including some persons accused of minor offenses as well as of felony crimes, plus additional information such as countries of origin – yield daily snapshots of those caught in the S-Comm net. It will take more time to accumulate sufficient roll calls, and more analysis, to draw detailed conclusions, but thus far the lists reflect neither the innocent "broken taillight" scenario described by immigration advocates, nor the legions of captured felons brandished by Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, when defending his participation in S-Comm. Instead, the roll calls reflect a very mixed and ambiguous record.
Unsurprisingly, Mexican immigrants represent the largest percentage of those in the county jail on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, as they await probable deportation. More revealing is the prevalence of arrests on suspicion of driving while intoxicated – charges which are, in most cases, Class B misdemeanors. But DWI stops, based on any impression of erratic driving, are also among the easiest for a patrol officer to justify.
Under S-Comm, fingerprints of those arrested (on charges of Class B misdemeanors or above) are shared with the Department of Public Safety, which shares them with the FBI and then with ICE, and holds the prisoners for up to 48 hours to facilitate deportations of the undocumented. Some 5,000 Travis County residents – at a rate of 19 people a week – have been deported since 2009, when Hamilton initiated his agency's S-Comm participation.
The main point of contention between those opposed to S-Comm and those supporting it is the issue of people who entered the S-Comm process via misdemeanor charges – a scenario that immigrants' rights advocates (and ICE databases) report occurs in more than three-quarters of all S-Comm arrests, but the sheriff's office insists either never happens or else is a negligible consequence of the deportation program. The new lists suggest in part that the argument may rest on how serious one considers a charge of driving while intoxicated – and whether the de facto punishment for that charge, even though untested in court, should be immediate deportation.
The new lists are posted on the Sheriff's website under the "Inmate & Jail Info" tab. Earlier lists released – and brandished by Sheriff Hamilton as evidence of the necessity of S-Comm – included only accused felons then held on ICE detainers.
Based on the roll call for Sept. 5, that Friday was apparently a slow day for S-Comm, with the posted list citing 48-hour ICE holds on only three men, two from Mexico and the third Guatemalan, two of the three arrested on DWIs. Most of the lists are similar in scale. But the first list posted, July 29, reflects a much longer S-Comm period, with nearly an all-Mexican cast. The July 29 list – apparently an omnibus list reaching back more than a year, into 2013 – lists 239 people (male and female) – with 90 entries including charges of either DWI or public intoxication. In that July 29 omnibus, 182 detainees are identified as Mexican, the rest mostly from other Latin American countries. (Nationalities are listed as "self-reported" by the arrestees, and not verified by TCSO.)
The July 29 list also includes four purported U.S. citizens caught in the 48-hour holds – meaning possible constitutional violations. All four have Hispanic surnames, but all four are also reported as having a U.S. place of birth – three from Texas, one from Washington. Immigration attorney Richard Jung has said that many of his own clients from the Asian community – legal residents nonetheless subject to the Sheriff's S-Comm protocols – had been stopped on suspicion of DWI. "Just because they're stopped for DWI doesn't necessarily mean they're intoxicated," Jung stressed. Often he is called on to free his clients from the 48-hour holds by providing proof of legal residency, such as visas. "They [the officers] don't know if they're undocumented or not," Jung said.
Amelia Ruiz Fischer, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the burden of proof of ethnic or racial bias in arrests is considerable. "From a legal perspective ... it takes very little for someone to get pulled over on a DWI stop," Fischer said. "The standard for a traffic violation with reasonable suspicion could be anything: swerving, the tire touching the yellow line, failure to yield, is enough of a reason. The way Texas law works makes it very difficult for someone to prove a stop was a case of racial profiling." For most drivers, a DWI charge might end in one night in jail and then either a fine or a dismissal; for an undocumented immigrant, a DWI charge alone might well mean a report to ICE and the initiation of deportation proceedings.
Yet despite protestations by immigrants' rights advocates that most of those captured by S-Comm have been arrested for minor offenses, with the exception of misdemeanor DWIs, those scenarios aren't readily reflected on the new ICE detainer lists. "The reason you are not seeing what you expect, or have been told you will see, is that it doesn't exist," said Sheriff's office spokesman Roger Wade via email. "We have said all along that people are not being stopped for a minor traffic violation (the broken taillight story) and taken to jail so they can be deported."
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse based at Syracuse University, 73% of those deported from Travis County had no convictions at the time of deportation. TRAC is continuing to analyze the data to determine how many of those actually deported by ICE had been charged with only misdemeanors. TRAC analysts say they gather their data not based on the sheriff's reckoning of who's in his jail during the daily 7:10am roll calls – but verifiable data received directly from ICE. "The data are from ICE's internal database systems that record each detainer ICE issued, where the detainer is sent, and the most serious conviction for the individual involved at the time the data was furnished to TRAC," wrote TRAC co-director Susan B. Long, an associate professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse University.
Meanwhile, county commissioners – once expected to draft their own resolution repudiating the program, as City Council did earlier this summer – have apparently put any action on the back burner. "We just got out of the budget sessions and that's what's slowed things down," said David Salazar, executive assistant to Judge Sam Biscoe. "We've pretty much put the budget to rest until the end of the month before they approve it, and then we'll be able to focus on other things, like S-Comm."
As for Sheriff Hamilton, Salazar added, "He gets his mandate from those who elected him. It's difficult for them to be able to try to direct the Sheriff. I don't want to say it's a slippery slope, but it's a little more precarious."
Download the ICE Detainer File 9/17/2014.
Download the ICE Detainer File 9/17/2014.