The End of S-Comm?
Presidential order protects millions, limits ICE detainers
Local immigrant advocates applauded last week's executive order by President Barack Obama shielding millions from immediate deportation – particularly given the action's potential to dismantle the Secure Communities program that's already banished thousands of people from Travis County.
"I'm really pleased with the steps he's taken," said Barbara Hines, clinical professor of law and co-director of the immigration clinic at the UT-Austin School of Law. "It allows members of our community to no longer live in fear. Children don't have to worry their parents won't be there when they come back from school."
Last Wednesday's order, essentially a reordering of Department of Justice priorities, protects from immediate deportation 4.4 million parents of U.S. citizens and green card-holders. Another 290,000 are being made eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which originally granted immigrants born after 1981 who had entered the country before June 15, 2007 eligibility for renewable two-year work permits and exemption from deportation. Under the expanded program, immigrants of any age who were brought to the U.S. as children and arrived before Jan. 1, 2010, will be eligible, and the permits will be for three – rather than two – years. Some noted that the president's action remained a partial step. Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún posted a statement, saying in part: "President Obama took an important first step in repairing this system. ... This executive action still leaves millions vulnerable and is a temporary fix to a problem that requires long-term solutions. Congress must act and pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship. Only with such a solution can we hope for a safe, sustainable, and united future."
But it was the likely end of S-Comm that provoked the most celebration.
"That program is done," said Amelia Ruiz Fischer of the Texas Civil Rights Project. She joined U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and fellow advocates in a press conference lauding the move Friday. "This program the government has poured millions of dollars on is over. It's good to step back, take a breath, and recognize this is a really big victory."
Cristina Parker, immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, shared in the elation. She joined a group of some 30 demonstrators in front of the Capitol the day after the announcement in calling for even broader protections. "S-Comm creates community distrust," she said, quoting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. "That's what we've been saying all along! We feel vindicated."
Several grassroots organizations have been working in opposition to S-Comm, which has led to deportation of some 5,000 undocumented immigrants in Travis County since its 2009 implementation. Under S-Comm, the sheriff's office detains arrestees suspected of being undocumented, holding them in county jail for a minimum 48-hour period until a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent can confirm their status and act on deportation proceedings.
Sheriff Greg Hamilton has been unmoved by S-Comm opposition in the past. And apparently, even a presidential executive order, sidestepping Congressional approval, is insufficient to soften that position. The Travis County Sheriff's Office remained officially unyielding, vowing to continue honoring detainers. "President Obama's executive order does not change the stance of the Travis County Sheriff's Office on cooperating with all law enforcement entities," Major Wes Priddy said in a prepared statement on Hamilton's behalf. "We have always honored detainers placed on inmates by others jurisdictions and we will continue to do so. Changes may occur within the federal government, but because we do not place detainers, nor do we deport anyone, we will continue to operate in the same manner we have been operating."
S-Comm's days in Travis County may, indeed, be numbered, but it remains to be seen if its replacement will be an improvement. As TCSO spokeswoman Lisa Block explained it: "The Secure Communities program is being replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program. We are reviewing the details of this new program, and as was previously stated, we will continue to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies, including ICE. Please keep in mind that this is a brand new change to the law that requires review, and we are reviewing the new program."