The sheriff of Travis County, Texas, which includes the city of Austin, made a unilateral decision in January to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a permanent office space in the county’s jails. The move would facilitate the deportation of undocumented immigrants who are arrested by local cops. Organizers and community members responded to Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s mandate by warning that they will go to the ballot box. The sheriff and other local officials are up for reelection on March 4.
“We are sending the message loudly,” says Luissiana Santibanez, a community organizer in Austin whose mother was deported, “that come March 4th, they will not be reelected if they allow this to happen. ICE doesn’t have a desk in the jails yet and seeing as there is no mandate requiring they be allowed in, we see no reason why they should be given that much power and access.”
Although ICE has for years had a presence in the Travis County jails, the policy shift will intensify their involvement since ICE personnel will now have a constant presence in the jail. ICE will be allowed to place federal immigration detainers on undocumented inmates or any documented non-citizens who commit any of an expansive set of deportable crimes.
While ICE has not yet set up a permanent office in the facility, the new cooperation between the sheriff and ICE officials has already had a major impact. There were usually about four or five people detained each month, according to Austin City Council member Mike Martinez, who opposes the sheriff’s decision. In December, however, about 111 people were detained and in the first two weeks of February. 110 had already been detained, Martinez said.
Jim Sylvester, Chief Deputy of the Travis Country Sheriff’s office initially denied that Travis County, had a financial incentive to cooperate with ICE. He admitted that the county receives $1.2 million in federal funds to incarcerate “criminal aliens” but suggested that they would receive the funds even if the county did not give ICE space in the jail. When pushed, however, Sylvester acknowledged that the county receives money for each person they hold with an ICE detainer. When asked if a permanent ICE presence in the jail would mean more federal immigration detainers on more prisoners, he responded in the affirmative, saying, “Once ICE is set up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they will be able to identify more individuals who are in this country illegally and therefore be able to place more detainees.”
This financial benefit, of course, calls into question the sheriff’s office claim that public safety is the primary impetus for cooperation with ICE.
Many states, counties and cities have faced pressure from the federal government to give ICE officials access to local jails. Some counties have bowed by permitting ICE offices in the jails. Others have signed up for the so-called 287G program that permits local officers to enforce federal immigration law. In Danbury, Connecticut, activists and community members protested at city hall against this move, arguing that the policy causes racial profiling and alienates immigrants who already fear government officials. Travis County officials have not yet signed up for the 287G program.
Martinez noted that the Travis County sheriff’s policy contradicts the city of Austin’s “years-long practice of not questioning suspects or victims about their immigration status.” That policy will continue to be in place in Austin, according to an Austin Police Department spokesperson. However, people arrested by Austin cops are transferred to Travis County jails where they will then become subject to ICE questioning.
Sylvester denied that the decision to give ICE access to the jails had a political motivation and insisted that it was good for public safety. “We know for a fact,” said Sylvester, “that we are only getting the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. These guys are really the undesirables. Most people wouldn’t want them getting out of jail and being their neighbor. They’d like to see them deported out of the country.”
But “undesirables” is quite a large category for Sylvester.
He suggested that the large numbers of foreign students at Austin universities posed a potential public safety problem as “colleges and universities have always had a tendency to become controversial with political activism and so that’s another thing where you have a lot of college students who come here on a student visa and they expire or get lost.” Sylvester did not clarify the implied connection between student activism and international students’ visas, but it can be assumed that he was suggesting a triple threat of undocumented immigration, terrorism and progressive student activism that need to be combated.
Santibanez contested this. “We’re talking about people being deported for going through a red light,” she said, adding that people “can be arrested for misdemeanors as small as not being able to pay a surcharge fee. These are crimes of poverty and people are being deported as a result.”
Carmen Llanes of the organization People Organizing in the Defense of Earth and Resources, noted, “There are serious due process issues that come up when immigrants are arrested and deported without any knowledge of their rights. These are people with no legal council present who have not even been convicted of any crime and may face deportation.”
Sylvester confirmed that people could be deemed innocent of any crime and still be detained by ICE and deported. He described a hypothetical situation in which an individual is “arrested for bank robbery and has an INS detainer placed on them. He goes through the normal process and the judge says he is not guilty of bank robbery, charges dismissed. Then the INS has 48 hours to pick that individual up and they take him to San Antonio to determine if they’re going to deport the guy.”
Efforts to overturn the sheriff’s decision continue as organizers and community members strategize. Llanes, Santibanez and others present at the public hearing and a meeting held afterwards made clear that the sheriff and other elected officials would face serious political consequences if they did not listen to the public response.
“As a Texan,” added Llanes, “I am disturbed that we are allowing federal officials with records of racial profiling and violations of constitutional rights into our jails.” Council Member Martinez agreed, adding that the jails are “paid for by local taxpayers. These funds are derived from property taxes, fines, fees and sales taxes (all of which are paid by everyone– including undocumented residents).”