Grassroots Leadership In The News

Apr 14, 2017
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The Texas Tribune

Trump greenlights a new immigrant-detention center in Texas

A private-prison company that has for years been in the crosshairs of immigrant rights groups announced Thursday it will build a $110 million detention complex in the Houston metro area.

The Florida-based GEO Group said in a news release its new facility will be built in the city of Conroe as part of a 10-year, renewable contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The detention center will be finished toward the end of 2018, the company said. The Associated Press first reported the story.

Immigrant advocacy groups said the move signals the beginning of President Trump’s efforts to expand detentions and begin fast-tracking the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. Part of the president's Jan. 25 executive order on immigration instructed the Department of Homeland Security to increase bed space for undocumented immigrants subject to removal. 

“We’re not surprised, but we are deeply disappointed that the administration is not only lining the pockets of the private-prison industry but expanding detention,” said Bob Libal, the executive director for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights and private-prison watchdog group.

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The new facility will add to the GEO Group’s heavy presence in Texas. The company’s website lists more than a dozen facilities it operates in the state. They range from smaller local jails used mainly by the U.S. Marshals Service to larger immigration-detention complexes near the border.

GEO Group was involved in a lengthy legal battle last year after Grassroots Leadership filed a lawsuit to prevent the company’s Karnes City facility from being licensed as a child-care facility by state officials. The center houses hundreds of women and children that were part of the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America who began arriving to Texas in record numbers four years ago.

The child-care facility licensing has been necessary since 2015, when U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere should be released because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — that requires undocumented juveniles be held in facilities that protect their health and safety.

A state district judge denied the state the ability to issue the licenses, but the facility continues to operate as a temporary processing center, Libal said. Read more about Trump greenlights a new immigrant-detention center in Texas

Apr 4, 2017
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Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

The state calls them family residential centers. Opponents have called them  “prisons for profit” and “little jails.”

On Wednesday, committees in both legislative chambers will address bills that would allow the Department of Family and Protective Services to license Texas facilities that house unauthorized mothers and children while they await their immigration hearings.

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In July 2015, a federal judge ruled that children can live in detention centers only if the centers are licensed by state child welfare agencies. Karnes and the South Texas facility, which is southwest of San Antonio, weren't licensed and faced closure.

To keep them from shuttering, in February 2016 the Department of Family and Protective Services gave itself the authority to license the facilities. Keeping them open helps the state deal with immigration control. But a state district court in December blocked Texas from issuing the licenses.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, author of the Senate bill, said in a meeting of the committee on Veteran Affairs and Border Security last week that his proposal was meant to address the court ruling. Lawmakers on the committee are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday, while members of the House State Affairs committee will hear testimony on an identical bill by Rep. John Raney, R-College Station.

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Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which brought the suit that halted the licensing of the centers, said immigrants have in the past been released to family members in the country after being issued notices to appear in court for their immigration hearings.

Most of these families are asylum seekers, Libal said, so they're not flight risks because there's an incentive for them to return to court and keep in contact with immigration officials. He said that family residential centers are not the only option and that his group would oppose the legislation to license them.

“There’s a whole range [of alternatives] that are less harsh than detaining families,” he said. Read more about Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

Apr 3, 2017
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The Austin American-Statesmen

ICE officials: 24 in Austin-Waco arrested in new immigration sweep

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents say they arrested 153 people in Texas suspected of being in the country illegally — including 24 people picked up in the Austin-Waco area — as part of the second enforcement operation immigration officials have confirmed in the state this year.

The 12-day operation, which lasted from March 20 to March 31, differed in execution and results from another one performed in the area during the second week of February.

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ICE officials also said all of the people arrested in last month’s operation had previous criminal convictions, as opposed to the February raid. Federal documents obtained by the American-Statesman showed 28 of the 51 people arrested in February were deemed “non-criminals,” or people with no previous criminal convictions but suspected of living in the country illegally.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said in open court last month that ICE agents alerted him and another federal judge about the February raid, which they said was retribution for the new Travis County sheriff’s policy limiting the jail’s cooperation with immigration officials, the Statesman reported last month.

ICE officials declined Friday to comment further on the arrests, but in a news release, Daniel Bible, field office director for enforcement and removal operations in San Antonio, said: “ICE’s primary immigration enforcement efforts target convicted criminal aliens. … Consequently, our operations improve overall public safety by removing these criminals from our streets, and ultimately from our country.”

Local activists criticized the new operation.

“I think this continues a trend of ICE instilling fear in our community and … arresting more people in our community,” said Bob Libal, with the Austin-based immigration support network Grassroots Leadership. Read more about ICE officials: 24 in Austin-Waco arrested in new immigration sweep

Mar 31, 2017
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Lexington Herald Leader

Empty jails hope to cash in on illegal immigration crackdown

Several Texas counties that are struggling with debt because their jails have few or no prisoners hope to refill those cellblocks with a different kind of inmate: immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

The debt dates back to the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, when some rural counties were losing employment prospects and population. To bring jobs and money, they built correctional centers with hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand beds that could be used to house inmates from other counties as well as prisoners for the state and federal governments.

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Jails and private prisons across the country are weighing their options after the Department of Homeland Security announced in January that it was shopping for more jail space as part of its efforts to secure the border.

In some places, the situation is the reverse of Texas, with public prisons full and states paying for extra beds. A private prison operator that had been housing 250 inmates for Vermont recently dropped the state as a client because the federal government will probably offer more for the same space.

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Three vacant Texas detention centers have been sold to private prison companies in the last few weeks, according to county officials and records filed with the national Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.

Some of the jails require updating to meet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards, but the existing facilities could put Texas at an advantage compared with other states where the companies would have to spend months building detention space.

Meanwhile, the traditional inmate-holding business is still declining. A proposed budget from the Texas Senate would end state contracts with four facilities, including three that are privately run, making it more important for those companies to get immigrant contracts to stay profitable.

ICE would not discuss how many beds the agency might need or its timetable for obtaining them. Agency spokesman Carl Rusnok declined to discuss any negotiations, citing the confidentiality of the federal contracting process.

At least one advocacy group is wary of the secretive process and of putting more detainees in privately run facilities after complaints and violations of inmate-care standards.

"If this is the plan to expand to the bottom of the barrel in detention centers, that should raise huge red flags for people concerned about immigrants' well-being and rights," said Bob Libal, executive director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which seeks immigration and detention reform. Read more about Empty jails hope to cash in on illegal immigration crackdown

Mar 30, 2017
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Rewire

Texas GOP: Treat Detention Centers as Child-Care Facilities

Republican-backed legislation introduced in the Texas legislature would enable the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to license two family detention centers as child-care facilities, while allowing the department to exempt these facilities from state rules.

Family detention is the policy of jailing asylum-seeking immigrant mothers with their children, including babies. The family detention centers in question are the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City. The bills would strike down a law that prevents DFPS from issuing child-care licenses, essentially allowing prison-like detention centers to operate as child-care facilities with reduced standards. For example, multiple families could be detained in one room, which isn’t allowed in child-care facilities outside of immigration detention.

Advocates assert that the GOP effort to allow DFPS to license these facilities has nothing to do with concern for children or providing oversight to the detention centers. Rather, it is to make sure the deadly private prison companies that run these family detention centers—the GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America—continue reaping profits.

Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based human rights organization Grassroots Leadership, said it’s also about acting in the best interest of the federal government.

“The stated reason from DFPS for pushing for these licenses is so they can regulate the facilities and do inspections, but that’s not the truth. It’s really about slapping licenses on these facilities, while also not making them come up to licensing standards,” Libal said. “This is all very political. This is happening because [DFPS] wanted to help the federal government detain children and families. This is not in the interest of children; it’s about upholding the Flores legislation.”

In 1997, the settlement agreement in Flores v. Lynch confirmed that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. Rather than closing these family detention centers, DFPS and the state of Texas has pushed to have them licensed. Despite not being licensed, these facilities continue to operate in violation of federal law.

People who had been held in family detention, as well as immigration and child-welfare advocates, spoke out at a Wednesday hearing in opposition to the proposed bills.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the bills, Libal said, is that they give the DFPS commissioner the ability to change standards or reduce them further.

“There’s a reason why people from the American Academy of Pediatrics and similar groups, that usually don’t work around immigration, are speaking out: Because this is bad for children,” Libal said. “If you read the bill, it says that the commissioner would have this power in part, for the operation of the facility. This means they can change the standards on the books in order for private prison companies to operate these facilities however they want to. This isn’t a regulation regime that improves standards; it allows for current operations to exist as private prison corporations design them.”

The practice of family detention has been deemed inhumane and is known to be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, but the family detention system will only grow under President Trump. The new administration is following in the footsteps of President Obama, targeting Central American asylum seekers and expanding immigrant detention. Just three months into Trump’s presidency, the private prison industry is booming, with companies like GEO and CoreCivic, known for human rights abuses andin-custody deaths, standing to benefit further.

Libal said that despite public opposition to the bills, GOP lawmakers seem in favor of moving them forward.

“There’s no telling what will happen in the Texas legislature, but we’ll just keep speaking out,” Libal said. “I have a lot of concerns for the future of family detention. These licenses are just a way to avoid the implications of federal litigation that have to do with standards that should be used when caring for children. This is an immigration issue, but it’s also a children’s rights issue. These bills are absolutely the wrong way to go forward.” Read more about Texas GOP: Treat Detention Centers as Child-Care Facilities

Mar 30, 2017
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The Huffington Post

Texas Republicans Hope To Give Child Care Licenses To Family Detention Centers

Republican state senators took a first step toward licensing two controversial family detention centers as child care facilities on Wednesday, selling the possible change as a way to keep the Trump administration from splitting up immigrant mothers and children at the border.  

At a hearing of the Texas Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Border Security Committee, Republicans said a bill relaxing standards for child care licenses would help the family detention centers skirt problems posed by ongoing lawsuits.

But critics ― including legal groups, members of the Catholic Church and immigrant rights advocates ― described family detention centers as little more than “baby jails.” Citing the fact that most of the mothers and children in detention are Central Americans fleeing violence who apply for asylum, they say there’s no need for family detention centers at all.

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The Obama administration hastily expanded the all-but-abandoned family detention policy back in 2014, as tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossed into the United States. Two family immigrant detention centers, both run by private prison contractors, currently operate in Texas. But the policy of detaining mothers with their children for extended periods has prompted lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled in 2015 that locking up immigrant children with their mothers violated the Flores settlement, which requires children to be detained in non-secure facilities and generally favors their release. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services issued emergency rules that year to reclassify the state’s detention centers as “child care” facilities under state law to help them comply with the ruling.

But in a case brought by former detainees and the activist group Grassroots Leadership, a state judge later ruled that family detention centers simply don’t fit the definition of a child care facility under Texas law.

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And authorities wouldn’t actually have to separate mothers and children at the border if the family detention centers became adult facilities. Nothing in immigration law requires them to be detained at all.

In practice, many of the undocumented women and children apprehended by authorities never see the inside of a detention center after crossing into the United States. Instead, they receive a notice to appear in immigration court and fight their cases from outside detention. Most of them petition for asylum or some other permission to stay in the United States for humanitarian reasons. Read more about Texas Republicans Hope To Give Child Care Licenses To Family Detention Centers

Mar 28, 2017
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Alternet

Is Trump Waging a Stealth War of Retaliation Against Sanctuary Cities?

As Attorney General Jeff Sessionsdoubles down on President Donald Trump’s threats to crack down on sanctuary cities, evidence is mounting that the administration has already made them the target of retaliatory immigration raids as part of a backdoor effort to force compliance.

The term “sanctuary city” refers to thehundreds of jurisdictions across the United States that, to one degree or another, limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

CNN reported on March 25 that an unnamed “senior U.S. immigration official with direct knowledge of ongoing ICE actions” testified that federal authorities have descended upon sanctuary cities to pressure them to cooperate. Journalist Maria Santana wrote, “High-ranking ICE officials have discussed in internal meetings carrying out more raids on those locations [sanctuary cities]."

While Santana’s source did not reveal his or her identity, a federal judge proclaimed in open court on March 20 that he was told firsthand by federal agents that aggressive immigration raids in Austin this February were orchestrated in direct retaliation for sanctuary policies adopted by a local sheriff. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin’s assertion was first reported by Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman.

In early February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out aggressive sweeps throughout Austin, arresting at least 51 people, as part of coordinated raids across the country. “They were pulling people over on the side of the road, apprehending them at their homes, knocking on doors and profiling people,” Cristina Parker, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, told AlterNet.

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“This retaliation was a vengeful tactic by ICE for all the progress the immigrant community has gained in this county in the last four years,” said the Travis County campaign, ICE Out of Austin. “This is as much an attack on the local democratic process, the immigrant community and their leadership as it is on our sheriff's policy. We fought too hard and too long to let ICE intimidate us back into accepting our deportations. We will continue to struggle and fight to end deportations.” Read more about Is Trump Waging a Stealth War of Retaliation Against Sanctuary Cities?

Mar 28, 2017
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The Brownsville Herald

Use of ankle monitors for immigrants on rise

Twelve years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated the use of ankle monitors on immigrants. After the large influx of Central American asylum seekers in 2014, the use increased dramatically.

According to authorities, close to 70,000 Central American refugees arrived at the U.S. border in 2014. Many were incarcerated in South Texas detention centers, while others were offered the option of wearing an ankle monitor as a condition of being released.

Within one year, approximately 23,000 immigrants were being monitored by that method. That number climbed to 60,000 in 2016.

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According to ICE, the ankle devices are an efficient way to make certain that immigrants show up for their court dates without having to detain them.

ICE reported that during the past two years, 99 percent of monitored immigrants have appeared at their hearings. ICE also says that compared to detention, the monitors are far less expensive to operate and maintain.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based group that opposes private prisons, says ankle monitors don’t address the underlying problem.

“On a systems level, it’s not accomplishing the goal of reducing the number of people in detention, or making our immigration system a more humane one,” he said.

Because many immigrants are held for months before being released with the ankle monitors, the devices aren’t fulfilling their goal as alternatives to detention. In October 2016, the number of detainees skyrocketed to a record high of 42,000.

BI Inc., a privately owned company, has a five-year contract with ICE to run the federal government’s program for alternatives to detention. BI Inc. is owned by parent company GEO Group, a private prison company that runs numerous detention centers. Read more about Use of ankle monitors for immigrants on rise

Mar 27, 2017
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The Daily Beast

Sanctuary City Starts GoFundMe After Gov Cuts Grants

In Austin, some courts might have to be crowdfunded.

That’s because the city is what President Donald Trump calls a “sanctuary city”—and it’s facing extraordinary pressure, both political and financial, to join the Trump administration’s mass deportation efforts.

Austin is in Travis County, where its so-called sanctuary policy has already cost it $1.5 million in state funding that would have paid for drug courts, veterans’ courts, and aid to domestic violence victims.

Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other advocates of tougher immigration enforcement urge local police and sheriffs to help ICE in its deportation efforts. But many local law enforcement officials—including including Travis County’s new sheriff, Sally Hernandez—are hesitant, fearing that undocumented immigrants will be less likely to help police track down dangerous criminals if those police are in cahoots with ICE.

When Hernandez announced the county wouldn’t always cooperate with Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott cut state funding to the county.

So the sheriff’s supporters are now crowdfunding to make up for the lost cash—cash that pays for special courts designed to help War on Terror veterans with PTSD and parents with drug addictions. And it’s unlikely to be an anomaly, as Austin has become a national focal point in Trump’s efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

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That’s a lot of pressure by itself—lost funding, and even the threat of prison. But some say it’s not all. Bob Libal, who heads the anti-deportation group Grassroots Leadership, told The Daily Beast in February that he thought ICE deportation raids taking in place in Austin were retaliation for Hernandez’s policy. Since then, a federal magistrate judge said she shared that view.

Libal said he thinks ICE crackdowns will continue.

“We fully anticipate that we will continue to be a target,” he said. Read more about Sanctuary City Starts GoFundMe After Gov Cuts Grants

Mar 23, 2017
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The Daily Texan

Federal judge says Austin ICE raids in response to sanctuary policy

A federal judge revealed Monday that federal agents told him last month’s immigration enforcement raids in Austin were in response to a policy protecting undocumented immigrants.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents notified him and another judge about a specific operation during a meeting in late January. The mid-Feburary raids occurred after the Travis County Sheriff’s Office stopped allowing ICE agents to detain inmates without warrants space on Feb. 1.

“We had a briefing … that we could expect a big operation, and at least it was related to us in that meeting that it was the result of the sheriff’s new policy, that this was going to happen,” Austin said in open court.

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A federal judge revealed Monday that federal agents told him last month’s immigration enforcement raids in Austin were in response to a policy protecting undocumented immigrants.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents notified him and another judge about a specific operation during a meeting in late January. The mid-Feburary raids occurred after the Travis County Sheriff’s Office stopped allowing ICE agents to detain inmates without warrants space on Feb. 1.

“We had a briefing … that we could expect a big operation, and at least it was related to us in that meeting that it was the result of the sheriff’s new policy, that this was going to happen,” Austin said in open court.

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Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County District Attorney, met with ICE regional field office director Dan Bible in February, who told her ICE was not targeting Austin, according to the Statesman.

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Bob Libal, director of immigrants rights advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, said ICE cannot be trusted given Monday’s announcement.

“It’s completely outrageous and appalling that ICE is choosing to terrorize the immigrant community in retaliation for a perfectly legal policy,” Libal said. “They are lying to local officials and to the press about what their activities are.” Read more about Federal judge says Austin ICE raids in response to sanctuary policy

Mar 21, 2017
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Downtown Austin patch

Federal Judge Confirms Heightened Austin ICE Action Is Payback For Softened Immigration Policy

The recent sweeps for undocumented immigrants in Austin by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were done in retaliation for the new sheriff's policy ending a close partnership with the federal agency over a preference in focusing on high-level felons for deportation, according to a published report.

As first reported by the Austin American-Statesman Monday, federal agents privately alerted two magistrate judges in late January they would target Austin with heightened a heightened immigration crackdown.

The reason: A more nuanced policy by Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez that doesn't cooperate with ICE in honoring so-called "detainers," 48-hour holds placed on any arrested person suspected of being undocumented to allow an agent plenty of time to arrive (usually from San Antonio) to fetch the detained person and follow up on deportation.

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“We had a briefing … that we could expect a big operation, agents coming in from out of town, that it was going to be a specific operation, and at least it was related to us in that meeting that it was the result of the sheriff’s new policy that this was going to happen,” Austin said, as quoted by the Statesman.

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What followed less than three months later was unprecedented in Austin, with people being pulled over on roadways or visited at homes and workplaces as ICE agents descended on Austin to root out undocumented immigrants beginning in early February. ICE agents' efforts undoubtedly were fueled by Hernandez's more softened approach but buoyed by Donald Trump and Greg Abbott, both eager proponents of wholesale deportations from their presidential and governor's perches, respectively. 

Immediately, suspicions emerged that the crackdown never before seen (the undocumented before detected largely during times of arrest, not personal visits by ICE agents) was sort of payback against Hernandez. The revelation made in court on Monday seems to support those suspicions.

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Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership in Austin, reacted angrily to the revelations, calling out past missives by ICE positing enforcement action as routine to have been outright lies.

“This revelation in open court proves what immigrants and advocates have known for years — that ICE regularly lies to immigrants, local officials, and the media,” Libal said. “Now more than ever, officials at every level of government should rethink their relationship with this agency, and cut ties with an entity that used its power to terrorize our community and then lies to elected officials about the reason for its operation.” Read more about Federal Judge Confirms Heightened Austin ICE Action Is Payback For Softened Immigration Policy

Mar 20, 2017
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The Huffington Post

Trump's DHS Rolls Out Public Shaming Campaign Against 'Sanctuary Cities'

The Trump administration has begun publicly shaming so-called “sanctuary cities” in an attempt to get them to cooperate with deportation efforts. 

The Department of Homeland Security on Monday issued a report about jurisdictions that had declined “detainer requests,” or appeals to hold individuals solely to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with some of the crimes those people had been accused of committing.

Such weekly reports are part of President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with ICE in some way, and are seemingly meant to pressure these cities and counties into compliance.

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ICE made 3,083 total requests to detain individuals between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, according to the report. Jurisdictions declined in at least 206 instances. Travis County, Texas ― which encompasses the city of Austin ― began to implement its “sanctuary” policies on Feb. 1 and accounted for about two-thirds of these denials to detain immigrants. 

Maj. Wes Priddy of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office said his county’s numbers were high because they included many people who had been in custody for months. After Sheriff Sally Hernandez took office, her office compiled all the names of people who wouldn’t be held under the new “sanctuary” policy and submitted them to ICE 10 days before implementing it. 

“The week they chose happens to fall at the time we implemented our new policy,” Priddy told The Huffington Post. “Any subsequent reports that ICE may choose to put out are going to show much smaller numbers.”

Since implementing the new detainer policy, Priddy said, the county jail has released on bonds 38 people with felonies on their records. All but one person, who was charged with driving under the influence, had attended their scheduled court hearings. 

“That’s every bit as good as the record of U.S. citizens that have to go to a court date,” Priddy said. “These people are showing up.” 

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Bob Libal, the director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that pushed for the Travis County sanctuary policy, said the Trump administration’s pressure on local jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE would make immigration enforcement more erratic than it was under former President Barack Obama.

“I fully expect that we’re going to see a dramatic uptick in detainers placed by ICE everywhere in the country, which only increases the rationale for county’s refusing to honor detainers,” Libal told HuffPost. “We’re not going to see the prioritization we saw under the Obama administration. We’re going to see a broad scope of people suspected of being undocumented or any immigration issue.” 

A growing number of local officials have refused over the past several years to honor ICE requests to hold undocumented immigrants, arguing that it undermined immigrants’ faith in local law enforcement and that the detainers funneled too many people with minor offenses or ties to the local community into deportation proceedings. Manylocal officials also worry that honoring all ICE detainers will force them to violate the constitution. Federal courts have ruled that local jurisdictions violate the Fourth Amendment when they honor a request from ICE and hold someone who would otherwise be allowed to go free. Read more about Trump's DHS Rolls Out Public Shaming Campaign Against 'Sanctuary Cities'

Mar 19, 2017
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The Bryan-College Station Eagle

Bryan-College Station spiritual leaders back immigrants

Muslim, Christian and Jewish spiritual leaders from across Bryan-College Station are putting aside doctrinal differences and focusing on scriptural similarities to determine how they can best join forces to support immigrant and refugee communities during a period of anxiety and uncertainty.

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Since taking office, President Donald Trump has issued orders instructing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 15,000 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents and broadening the parameters of prioritization of forced removal to include more immigrants. Trump's policies have left many immigrants across the country -- including some in Bryan-College Station -- afraid to leave their homes.

Spiritual leaders throughout Bryan-College Station have stepped in to assuage some of their concerns; De Leon estimated that between 15-20 clergy members have been meeting with the Brazos Interfaith Immigration Network, or BIIN, for the past several months to determine how to work together to advocate for immigrant and refugee communities. 

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De Leon laid out a number of explicit actions he said his church could do to support immigrant and refugee communities across Bryan-College Station.

"When we think of being a sanctuary church, our minds go to an open-door church where immigrants are housed," said De Leon. But being supportive of the sanctuary movement, he added, could involve "meeting people where they are versus harboring undocumented immigrants."

Among the options are visiting immigrants being held in detention centers, helping to find legal counsel for the detained, holding fundraisers to pay lawyers to help those about to be deported in getting their affairs in order and getting trained to participate in Sanctuary in the Streets, a four-hour class taught by the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership. Sanctuary in the Streets teaches supporters to be witnesses to ICE raids by live-streaming arrests using cell phones and engaging in direct-action protests in response to immigration raids.

Alejandro Caceres, a representative from Grassroots Leadership, said that 250 people had been certified through the training in the Austin/Central Texas area. About six are certified in B-CS.

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None of the houses of worship in this article have formally become part of the sanctuary movement, though Friends Congregational Church will have a congregational discussion and vote today on whether and how to pledge support to the sanctuary movement. Read more about Bryan-College Station spiritual leaders back immigrants

Mar 11, 2017
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Austin American-Statesman

130 miles from Austin, immigration court decides the fate of thousands

A Central Texas welder named Jorge Lozada-Castillo sat in a small courtroom holding headphones to his ears as he listened to the Spanish translation of a judge’s decision.

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The entire proceeding took about 10 minutes, and, by the time it ended, Lozada-Castillo had agreed to leave the country of his own accord by Tuesday or face forced deportation.

This small 20-by-30-foot courtroom, set behind two locked steel doors inside an immigrant detention center in Pearsall, 45 miles southwest of San Antonio, is on the front line of the Justice Department’s efforts to deport each year more than 250,000 people living in the U.S. illegally. Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was just one of thousands that happen every week, many of which occur outside of the public’s view in detention centers across the nation.

And with stepped-up enforcement expected under President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration violations, Central Texas and the rest of the state will likely see an increase in activity by immigration and Border Patrol officers.

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Immigrants who go before the court aren’t guaranteed a lawyer, unlike citizens and immigrants in criminal court. Yang, a staff attorney for American Gateways, said she believes a large majority of people who come before the court aren’t represented by lawyers.


 

Highlights

A court in Pearsall, 130 miles south of Austin, decides whether to deport thousands of immigrants each year.

The court is housed at a detention center that holds most immigrants detained in the Austin-San Antonio area.

Most people who go before the court show up without an attorney and are deported, data shows.

PEARSALL —

A Central Texas welder named Jorge Lozada-Castillo sat in a small courtroom holding headphones to his ears as he listened to the Spanish translation of a judge’s decision.

No, the judge decided, he wouldn’t be granted bail. Lozada-Castillo’s two convictions for driving while intoxicated made him a danger to the public and a flight risk.

No, he wouldn’t be allowed a last-ditch chance to formally wed his common-law wife, a Lockhart woman who is the mother of his 5-year-old autistic son. He would be sent back to Mexico, despite the hardship it would cause his family.

“I’m sorry to hear about your son, but that is not going to affect my decision,” said Judge R. Reid McKee in the hearing late last month.

The entire proceeding took about 10 minutes, and, by the time it ended, Lozada-Castillo had agreed to leave the country of his own accord by Tuesday or face forced deportation.

This small 20-by-30-foot courtroom, set behind two locked steel doors inside an immigrant detention center in Pearsall, 45 miles southwest of San Antonio, is on the front line of the Justice Department’s efforts to deport each year more than 250,000 people living in the U.S. illegally. Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was just one of thousands that happen every week, many of which occur outside of the public’s view in detention centers across the nation.

And with stepped-up enforcement expected under President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration violations, Central Texas and the rest of the state will likely see an increase in activity by immigration and Border Patrol officers.

Pearsall immigration court

Austin has already seen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducting more high-profile operations in the region, including the courthouse arrest of a Mexican citizen last week and an ICE raid that swept up 51 peoplesuspected of being in the country illegally.

SPECIAL REPORT: Meet the immigrants arrested in Austin ICE raids

ICE agents have appeared emboldened since Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 that gave the agency far wider latitude on whom it detains. In Austin, more than half of the people swept up last month in Operation Cross Check were found to be noncriminals, including some whom the agency wasn’t even seeking. Many of them have been deported since then.

Nearly all of the 683 people rounded up in the nationwide operation will eventually end up at a hearing like Lozada-Castillo did.

These little-known courts conduct hearings for immigrants every day — and they take place largely out of view. At the detention center where Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was held, four judges, all hired by the U.S. Justice Department, decide who gets to stay and who is deported.

Lozada-Castillo’s hearing took place at the South Texas Detention Complex, a sprawling prisonlike facility that holds most of the immigrants detained in the Austin-San Antonio area who are accused of being in the U.S. illegally. The 1,904-bed facility is commonly known as the Pearsall Unit, named after the city of about 9,600 residents along Interstate 35 where it is located.

Of the 57 immigration courts across the U.S., the Pearsall immigration court is the seventh-busiest, according to data from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Pearsall had just over 10,000 hearings in 2015 — more than immigration courts in Houston and Dallas — and was second only to San Antonio among the eight immigration courts in Texas.

About 284,000 new cases were filed across those courts in 2015, and the number of new cases has topped 300,000 several times in recent years. Seventy-two percent of the people who go before the courts for possible removal are deported, according to five years of data tracking 761,000 cases.

Cases like Lozada-Castillo’s are typical for the courts. Often, a judge will hold an initial hearing for several people at once that, without a lawyer representing the immigrants, might last only two minutes. Despite their brevity, those hearings decide whether the “respondent” should be deported.

In Lozada-Castillo’s case, he sat with two other men seated beside him. All three wore headphones to hear the rapid translation from the court’s interpreter.

“It’s confusing,” immigration attorney Edna Yang said. “If you are not represented (by a lawyer) or don’t know what is going on, you might accept deportation because you don’t know what else to do.”

‘Deck is stacked against you’

Immigrants who go before the court aren’t guaranteed a lawyer, unlike citizens and immigrants in criminal court. Yang, a staff attorney for American Gateways, said she believes a large majority of people who come before the court aren’t represented by lawyers.

Aggregate data aren’t available, but research from a Syracuse University group suggests that Yang is correct. In October, the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse released a report analyzing 38,000 cases on the immigration courts’ “rocket docket” for adults with children and found that70 percent appeared before the court without an attorney to represent them.

Those unrepresented immigrants filed paperwork seeking relief from deportation through asylum and other means at a far lower rate than immigrants with lawyers, 6.5 percent, the analysis found. About 95 percent of those who received deportation orders at their initial appearance — like Lozada-Castillo — didn’t have an attorney.

Having an attorney improves the odds for those seeking to avoid deportation, but it’s not a guarantee. In Texas, roughly three-quarters of those with attorneys were still ordered deported, the TRAC data shows.

“The deck is stacked against you,” said Bob Libal, executive director of local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the detention of immigrants who are living in the country illegally. “The vast majority are not represented and they are fighting for their lives in a language that is not their own in a legal system that is not familiar.”

Nonprofit organizations like American Gateways offer free legal services for some immigrants in the deportation process. They also connect immigrants to attorneys available for little or no cost. And at Pearsall, immigrants are given worksheets that show organizations that might assist them in legal matters.

However, because deportation hearings are not criminal charges, respondents do not have the same right to an attorney.

The judge’s decision to deport a person or not is based on several pieces of criteria. Having children who are U.S. citizens is one factor that judges look at; another is how long a person has been in country continuously. Many immigrants will also seek asylum in confidential hearings in which they have to prove their lives could be threatened if they are returned to their country of origin.

Asylum pleas have been denied at a greater clip in recent years. In 2016, 57 percent of requests were denied, according to TRAC data, the highest rate since 2005.

Without legal representation, the hurdles are heightened for immigrants trying to prove they would be put in danger if deported.

“It’s harder to communicate to find those documents while you’re behind bars,” Libal said. Read more about 130 miles from Austin, immigration court decides the fate of thousands

Mar 10, 2017
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Austin Chronicle

Undocumented, Unafraid

On Feb. 10, her community experienced the first tangible signs of that danger. As part of a sweep through 12 states, ICE detained dozens in the Austin region and more than 680 immigrants nationwide. While "Operation Cross Check" ostensibly targeted "public safety threats," reports later showed that most of those arrested locally did not have criminal records, sparking questions of political retaliation. The immigrant community, an already vulnerable population, has since been forced to reckon with deep anxiety, fear, and feelings of destabilization. Like many undocumented Austinites today, Alvarado's parents are "laying low," she said, forgoing the 40-minute drive to visit their daughter in San Marcos, and updating her on nearly every trip out of the house they make.

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But while some immigrants back into the shadows for self-preservation, others have felt empowered to take to the streets and speak up. The raids ignited daily protests at the intersection of Rund­berg and North Lam­ar, and several rallies and demonstrations in the ensuing weeks. Over the past month, and now into an uncertain future, the community navigates a delicate balance between protecting themselves and their families while letting the public know they deserve to call Austin home.

"Trump, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" ("Trump, listen! We are in the fight!") chanted roughly 200 immigrants and allies over the sounds of Tejano accordion music and drumbeats outside the J.J. Pickle Federal Building on a clear day in mid-February. Toting handmade signs and the Mexico and U.S. flags, activists – surrounded by Austin Police and Department of Homeland Secur­ity officials – joined the nationwide Day Without Immigrants strike in peaceful protest to assert their self-worth, remind the city of their many contributions, and condemn the recent raids.

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Early rumblings of ICE raids in the first days of February sent local nonprofit and legal groups into an organizing frenzy ("ICE Raid in Austin?" Feb. 2). And the strategizing paid off: Groups, including the Texas Here to Stay coalition, were able to respond to the enforcement action. A rapid text alert system for attorneys led to a pop-up legal clinic at the Grassroots Leadership offices on Cesar Chavez. Around 80 people showed up, including 10 family members directly affected by the arrests. "I think we were the first city in Texas to have something set up that had a rapid response and alert system," said Faye Kolly, a local immigration attorney and member of the American Immi­gra­tion Lawyers Association. "As a city, we have a lot to be proud of."

Kolly described the mood in the makeshift legal clinic as one of mass confusion and panic. "Many were visibly frightened and shaken, there was a lot of uncertainty and fear," she said. While conducting consultations, Kolly and other attorneys began to notice that while ICE claimed they were only going after those with serious and dangerous criminal records, some of the cases clearly didn't match the call. "ICE was waiting for people to leave their homes in the morning so they could pick them up from work," said Kolly. "We saw a lot of people being swept up who were not supposed to be targeted. Of course, what we know now is that everyone is a target."

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Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer with Grassroots Leadership, which leads the ICE out of Austin movement, said the next step is finding safe haven for those facing the threat of deportation; in effect creating an underground network of businesses, clinics, restaurants, churches, and other places that can harbor immigrants in the event of upcoming massive raids – or at least banish ICE from their private property.

"It doesn't seem like the local government can protect us from the federal administration, so we've got to find a way to protect ourselves," he said. "We want people to be actively on the lookout and make sure ICE doesn't feel comfortable in parking lots and businesses. If ICE is going to do a stakeout on private property, we want it to be as inconvenient as possible." Count St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church (part of the interfaith Austin Sanctuary Network) and Black Star Co-op as havens. AISD also recently passed a resolution reaffirming that the district is a safe space for all students, regardless of immigration status.

Of course, under the Texas Legislature's plan to pass a so-called "sanctuary cities" bill this session, safe shelter is equally under threat ("Matters More Than the Law," Feb. 10). Senate Bill 4, by Sen. Charles Per­ry, R-Lubbock, would punish local governments and universities that don't comply with ICE detainer requests to hand over immigrants. Violating the potential law could mean a loss of state grant funds. Labeled as one of Gov. Greg Abbott's "emergency" priorities, SB 4 sped through the full Senate and now heads to the House, despite resounding testimony in opposition.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and 10 co-authors, including Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Aus­tin, have proposed a counter bill (SB 997) that would establish "safe zones" for immigrants at hospitals, public schools, courthouses, and places of worship, where local and state police would be prohibited from enforcing federal immigration laws. "These have always been in our society: institutions where it should be safe and one can trust that institution," Garcia said at a Feb­ruary legislative press conference. "If we break that, it breaks our democracy." Read more about Undocumented, Unafraid

Mar 8, 2017
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Alternet

Private Prison Execs Are Gloating Over Soaring Profits from Trump's Mass Deportation Agenda

In a February 22 call with investors, the private prison corporation GEO Group openly boasted that the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants is boosting its bottom line and fueling its expansion.

One of the largest private prison companies in the world, GEO Group, stands accused of widespread human rights violations, including charges that the company forced tens of thousands of immigrants in ICE detention at the Aurora, Colorado Denver Contract Detention Facility to perform slave labor. GEO Group’s Karnes family detention center in Texas, where mothers are incarcerated with their children, has been the site of repeated hunger strikes over poor conditions and indefinite detention.

Speaking with investors (transcript is available here), David Donahue, the President of GEO Corrections and Detention, directly cited the Trump administration’s “deportation force” as a boon to business.

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Speaking with investors, chairman and chief executive officer George Zoley gloated, “We’re very pleased with our strong fourth quarter and year end results and our outlook for 2017," adding: “It is gratifying to see GEO’s continued financial success.”

Zoley went on to directly cite Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders as a boon to business, proclaiming:

With respect to detention services, in support of border security, we would continue to be the largest provider of detention services to the three federal agencies — that is to ICE, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. With this increased and expanded approach to border security, the first agency that will need additional capacity is ICE. Border Patrol will catch individuals and then send them to an ICE facility. Subsequently, there will be a need by the U.S. Marshals Service for those people that have committed criminal acts and need to be detained for adjudication. And further on down the line, BOP will need additional capacity as well for those people who’ve been sentenced and need to serve their time in one of the CAR facilities.

So it’s really an escalation of capacity need for all three federal agencies as a result of the president’s new executive orders redirecting the approach to border security for the three federal agencies.

The advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership blasted the company for profiting from Trump’s plans to implement mass deportations. "While immigrant communities are being terrorized by raids, the private prison industry is quietly celebrating a potential boom in business,” said Bob Libal, the executive director of the organization. “Prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America are preparing for an enormous expansion to detention under this administration. Mass deportations should make our country ashamed, not make private prison executives rich." Read more about Private Prison Execs Are Gloating Over Soaring Profits from Trump's Mass Deportation Agenda

Mar 3, 2017
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The Austin American Statesman

ICE agents in Travis County courthouses looking for suspects

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was one of dozens of unauthorized immigrants released from the local jail after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez implemented a new policy to not honor many ICE detainers.

Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, in a news release from the immigrant advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, confirmed that Coronilla-Guerrero was one of more than 30 immigrants released in the days following Hernandez’s implementation of a policy that greatly limited cooperation with ICE requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants.

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ICE agents in Austin on Friday detained an immigrant suspected of being in the country illegally at the Travis County courthouse, in what appears to be a new tactic by immigration officials.

Defense attorney Daniel Betts confirmed to the American-Statesman that his client, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, was detained at the courthouse, where was scheduled to appear for two misdemeanor charges, assault-family violence and possession of marijuana.

Betts said his client was arrested in an elevator at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center.

The Travis County sheriff’s office confirmed that ICE agents were at the courthouse serving a warrant.

Attorney George Lobb, who saw the arrest, said the paperwork he saw was not a warrant or other court order.

“It struck me as extraordinary,” said Betts, who added that his client was in court expressly to resolve the misdemeanor charges so we would not run into problems with immigration.

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The report of federal agents looking for suspects at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center and the Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse comes three weeks after an ICE enforcement operation centered on Austin and four other metro areas across the US that led to the arrests of 683 people.

In the past, deportation proceedings in Travis County have largely been prompted by an arrest that led to immigration checks. But during the four-day enforcement operation, ICE officials were out in the community, pulling people over and taking them in.

The mid-February ICE raids fueled speculation that Austin was being singled out because of recent controversy over newly elected Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy to deny most of the agency’s requests to delay the release of inmates at the Travis County jail for immigration checks. Read more about ICE agents in Travis County courthouses looking for suspects

Mar 2, 2017
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Business Insider

A notoriously abusive detention center nicknamed 'Ritmo' may be re-opening under Trump

One of America's most notorious detention centers may be opening its doors again under President Donald Trump.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is considering reactivating the vacant Willacy County Correctional Facility in Raymondville, Texas, according to Texas Monthly, prompting concerns about the center's history of abuse, neglect, and other illegal activity.

The news comes as ICE rapidly moves to expand its detention capacity along the Mexican border, under instruction from Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Built in 2006 with a maximum capacity of 3,000, the detention center was the largest in the country at the time —but it faced problems immediately.

Attorneys and immigration advocates revealed that undocumented immigrants were held up to 23 hours a day in the center's 10 windowless tents, and reported insufficient food, medical attention, clothing, and access to telephones, all within a year of the facility opening.

The problems continued in 2007, when in July officials discovered maggotsin the inmates' food supplies. Though officials called the incident a one-time occurrence, inmates complained the next month of mold, flooded toilets, and infestations of insects and rodents.

Inmates also claimed they were being given dirty underwear and towels for use, as well as shoes and socks with holes.  The American Bar Association reported some detainees "indicated that they had been instructed not to say anything negative to the delegation about the facility."

The facility earned the disparaging moniker "Ritmo" during this time, because it was "like Gitmo, but it's in Raymondville," said immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin, using the nickname for the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. 

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The facility was shuttered in 2015 after inmates revolted and set fire to three of its tents, leaving the center uninhabitable — a "welcome but long overdue move," the ACLU said at the time.

However, critics are now worried about its potential re-opening.

"To reopen this troubled private prison would be a giant step backwards," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based social justice group that opposes private prisons, in a statement. Read more about A notoriously abusive detention center nicknamed 'Ritmo' may be re-opening under Trump

Mar 2, 2017
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The World Weekly

America First, minorities last?

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Since taking office, the president has sought to tackle immigration on two fronts. First, at its external borders through building a Great Wall of Mexico and imposing a travel ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. On top of this, the Department of Homeland Security announced measures that drastically expanded immigration agencies’ power to arrest and deport those in the US illegally.

On February 6, ICE officers arrested 680 people in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and San Antonio. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described these measures as a continuation of Obama-era policies that had been in place “for many years”, but the flurry of raids was seen by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union - which rushed to publish explainers on how to act in the event of an ICE raid - as the opening shot in a new war.

The number of people expelled may not yet set the Trump administration apart, but the way deportations are being carried out distinguishes it from its predecessor. Take the case of Irving Gonzales in El Paso, who was arrested inside a county courthouse moments after she had received a protective order as a victim of domestic abuse. 

Her story is one of many. In Alexandria, Virginia, agents recently waited across the street from a church, detaining several Latino immigrants as they left a cold weather shelter. Near Seattle, immigration officials raided the home of a convicted Mexican drug trafficker. They also picked up his son, part of the DACA programme, who had no criminal record and held a legal permit to work in the US.

When incidents like these occurred under President Obama, Human Rights Watch's Clara Long told TWW, the White House would usually apologise or excuse them as the misdemeanour of an overzealous agent. Now, she noted, immigration agencies are “going full steam ahead”.

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Bob Libal, executive director of the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas, agreed that the Trump administration has widened ICE’s “dredge-net”. He shared the story of two Latino brothers in Austin who had got up on a Saturday morning to go to work, and had been cornered by ICE agents in the parking lot of their apartment complex. The agents had been looking for someone else, but they asked the brothers if they had papers. They did not. One of the brothers was back in Mexico by Saturday evening.

Many of those apprehended by ICE are detained rather than deported. According to Mr. Libal, we can expect a “massive expansion” of the detention system. There are reports that immigration detention centres previously shuttered due to high-profile cases of violence, sexual and psychological abuse might be reopened. A recent New York Times op-ed asked whether these detention centres are the next Abu Ghraib. That, Mr. Libal said, is “very telling”.

... Read more about America First, minorities last?

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