Sheriff and ICE eager pen pals
When defending his aggressive implementation of the federal Secure Communities program – an Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative that has led to the deportation of some 5,000 undocumented immigrants since 2009 – Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton often suggests his deputies' hands are tied, compelled by law to reflexively enforce the program by placing 48-hour holds on arrested immigrants while their legal status is determined.
But internal emails between the Travis County Sheriff's Office and ICE officials reveal a much more collaborative relationship – a near-daily dialogue between the agencies tantamount to a continual implementation primer, including reliance on ICE for press advisories later tweaked by the TCSO for a locally generated feel.
The emails were obtained recently by Amelia Ruiz Fischer, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, and she shared them with the Chronicle.
"Sheriff and Roger," begins an April 1 email to Hamilton and TCSO spokesman Roger Wade, from Richard Rocha, Enforcement and Removal Operations deputy chief of staff in San Antonio. "I wasn't sure if you were planning on putting out a release after all. I crafted a real quick release that might be able to help if you decide to. Again, completely up to you folks, but I think putting out a release with a clear message may reinforce the purpose of the news conference and provide a timely lead for the reporters."
Purporting to describe the more serious criminal element among people ensnared by S-Comm – 1,400 "egregious criminal aliens" since 2009, by ICE's reckoning – Rocha's template offers handy placeholders labeled "quote from sheriff." Hamilton later released the statement to the media, virtually verbatim, under the TCSO letterhead.
The lack of clarity as to who is ensnared by S-Comm, and on what charges, is illustrated in other emails. "Please pull up Roman Zuvieta and his criminal record and why he was deported and send to me before noon tomorrow," Hamilton asks Rocha in a March 31 email, adding, "Please don't tell me you can't pull this info up." Ultimately deported as a consequence of a recent misdemeanor, Zuvieta acknowledged a previous charge against him for domestic violence. In the intervening years, he had expressed his contrition by hosting meetings at his church – with wife Carmen Rodriguez at his side – intended as sessions for couples on how to avoid domestic abuse.
On March 12, Rocha had floated a compelling case to Hamilton and Wade as a way to defend S-Comm. Rocha relates the tale of a suspect arrested but not initially placed on an ICE hold, as outlined in the strict practice of S-Comm. "I wonder if something like this would help instead of getting into the numbers," Rocha writes of the case – which took place not in Travis County but in Cook County, Ill. "Here's why we honor detainers," Rocha writes in suggesting talking points, stressing the release without ICE detainer of the suspect, initially arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. "Last month, that alien was arrested again for the killing [of] his ex-girlfriend and shooting her mother. (then more about your stance on detainers)."
In his first substantive interview on the S-Comm program for the Chronicle, Hamilton later repeated this pre-baked example in his defense of the program (see "Banned of the Free," July 4) – only later acknowledging it was not a local example, and never noting that it was an anecdote provided by Rocha and ICE.
Indeed, even Hamilton's claim that his hands are tied originated at the urging of ICE, as illustrated in a Feb. 5 email from Rocha. "Here is the information we are using to respond to reporters," Rocha writes. "I have been driving home the fact this is a federal information sharing initiative and that your office does not get to choose where the information is sent once it goes to the FBI. If you need anything just give me a holler."
Concerned about potential constitutional violations, many communities have opted out of S-Comm, declining to subject people arrested on minor charges to ICE detainers – meaning also, the information is never shared with the FBI in the first place. But Sheriff Hamilton and Travis County have declined even to consider limiting the program, in the process becoming one of the nation's most aggressive S-Comm practitioners. And, with the constant advice, feedback, research, and guidance of ICE on how best to justify the brisk rate, undocumented immigrants are being deported from the county at an average rate of 19 per week.
"One thing I would request is that we reinforce the message that the sheriff cannot deport anyone," Wade wrote to Rocha on Feb. 23. Wade has made the same assertions to the Chronicle – while failing to acknowledge that were it not for the TSCO providing a gateway to S-Comm, detainees wouldn't be deported after minor charges.
"Twitter has messages saying that they want the Sheriff to stop deporting people," Wade complains to Rocha. "I am replying that we don't deport only Federal Official can do that." A minute later, Rocha responded, "Right on. I'll get with our Public Affairs folks and urge them to work that into the statement." If the Sheriff's hands are indeed "tied" by his relationship with ICE, he seems peculiarly eager to offer them up for the handcuffs.
On Wednesday, Oct. 15, 6-8pm, the Travis County Democratic Party is hosting a public forum on Secure Communities at the Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River. Speakers will include Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, Alejandro Caceres (Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition), Amelia Ruiz Fischer (Texas Civil Rights Project), Matt Simpson (American Civil Liberties Union of Texas), and Bob Libal (Grassroots Leadership).