Travis County, Texas, has one of the highest deportation rates in the U.S. thanks to the local sheriff’s voluntary cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An average of 19 immigrants a week are deported here. Stopping the deportation dragnet in Travis County would mean stopping the potential detention and deportation of thousands of Austin-area residents. Grassroots Leadership, in coalition with other groups in the Austin-area, is making that happen by engaging in direct action, community education, and dialogue with local elected officials.
The #19TooMany Campaign
Around the country, President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. have spread fear and anxiety and led many people to brace for arrest and to change up their daily routines in hopes of not getting caught.
The unease among immigrants has been building for months but intensified in recent weeks with ever-clearer signs that the Trump administration would jettison the Obama-era policy of focusing mostly on deporting those who had committed serious crimes.
The administration announced Tuesday that any immigrant in the country illegally who is charged with or convicted of any offense, or even suspected of a crime, will now be an enforcement priority. That could include people arrested for shoplifting or other minor offenses, or those who simply crossed the border illegally.
Some husbands and wives fear spouses who lack legal papers could be taken away. And many worry that parents will be separated from their U.S.-born children.
An organization in Austin, Texas, that runs a deportation hotline said it normally would receive one or two calls every few days. After recent immigration raids, the phone rang off the hook.
“We got over 1,000 phone calls in three days about the raids,” said Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership. “And certainly a lot of those were people who wanted information about the raids saying, ‘I’m scared, I’m worried, what can I do?’… A lot of them were people who were impacted by the raids who saw a friend or family be taken.” Read more about Deportation fears adjust immigrants' daily routines
The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday released a set of documents translating President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration and border security into policy, bringing a major shift in the way the agency enforces the nation’s immigration laws.
Under the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes were the priority for removal. Now, immigration agents, customs officers and Border Patrol agents have been directed to remove anyone convicted of any criminal offense.
That includes people convicted of fraud in any official matter before a governmental agency and people who “have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.”
Austin-area immigration supporters call Trump’s policy too wide-ranging, saying it will lead the government to deport more immigrants who have committed minor offenses — or are merely suspected of a crime.
The change in enforcement priorities will require a considerable increase in resources. With an estimated 11 million people in the country illegally, the government has long had to set narrower priorities, given the constraints on staffing and money.
In the so-called guidance documents released Tuesday, the department is directed to begin the process of hiring 10,000 new immigration and customs agents, expanding the number of detention facilities and creating an office within Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help families of those killed by undocumented immigrants. Trump had some of those relatives address his rallies in the campaign, and several were present when he signed an executive order on immigration last month at the Department of Homeland Security.
But the officials also made clear that the department intended to aggressively follow Trump’s promise that immigration laws be enforced to the maximum extent possible, marking a significant departure from the procedures in place under President Barack Obama.
That promise has generated fear and anger in the immigrant community, and advocates for immigrants have warned that the new approach is a threat to many undocumented immigrants who had previously been in little danger of being deported.
Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer at Grassroots Leadership in Austin, said the changes are scary for the immigrant population.
“Expanding the definition of criminal now puts everyone and anyone at risk for deportation,” he said. Read more about Waves of deportations predicted as Trump changes immigration orders
When Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore was alerted to the case against Hugo Gallardo-Gonzalez, accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a young girl and targeted by federal immigration agents, she had a clear vision for his future.
She wanted to take him to trial on the most serious felony charge possible.
Then see him do time.
And then — and only then — possibly see him expelled from the country.
As the battle over so-called sanctuary cities continues, Moore’s pursuit exposes what has been a largely unexamined dimension of whether Texas sheriffs should be bound to hold inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation: What happens to the original cases that landed those suspects in jail?
Bob Libal, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership, said, “The immigration system actually can interfere with the criminal justice system. Not having immigration involved helps the criminal justice system carry out its duties, whereas when you mix immigration and criminal justice, you end up not doing justice by anybody.”
After collecting inmates from local jails across the state, federal authorities often offer suspects a chance to leave the country voluntarily, and many immigrants, especially those without adequate legal representation, do so, said Jose “Chito” Vela III, an immigration and criminal defense attorney in Austin. Read more about In 'sanctuary' fight, a new question of justice emerges
More than 400 protesters marched downtown Thursday as part of the national “Day Without Immigrants” in response to the federal government’s recent crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
At 10 a.m., a rally of about 200 people convened outside City Hall, where council members later that day approved granting $200,000 in emergency city funding to cover immigration legal fees.
A separate group of protesters organized by Grassroots Leadership, an immigration rights advocacy group, started its trek from the J.J. Pickle Federal Building where ICE detainments occurred the past few weeks.
The group then merged with protesters from City Hall at the Capitol. The collective mass walked back down Congress Avenue to the J.J. Pickle Federal Building around 3:25 p.m, where more than 200 gathered, according to Austin Police.
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said people coming out of their homes following recent ICE raids is powerful.
“This is the biggest immigration outpouring I’ve seen since 2006,” Libal said. “Many of them have been really traumatized by these raids. They have family members who were detained out here.” Read more about Hundreds protest downtown for national "Day Without Immigrants" strike
While hundreds of people around the country have been arrested by federal immigration officers in recent days, the Kansas City suspicions proved unfounded.
But the rapid mobilisation there showed that with communities on edge as the Trump administration’s immigration crackdowns begin, grassroots groups are learning to act quickly to form information-sharing networks and raise awareness of legal rights.
In US cities, more than 680 people were arrested last week by Ice officers, including in and around Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio and New York City, according to a statement on Monday from John Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security secretary. Kelly said the operations “targeted public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges”.
Immigration advocates have started to form plans to respond to these raids in various forms.
In Austin, an initiative called Sanctuary in the Streets has trained US citizens to form a literal physical barrier between undocumented immigrants and enforcement agents. When agents arrive at the door, undocumented immigrants can call for help and one or more US citizens will quickly arrive to stand in front of the door, watching, challenging and filming law enforcement with the goal of ensuring constitutional rights are respected and encouraging a media spotlight.
“Any time we heard of an action happening, folks responded, were ready to go, knew what to do,” Cristina Parker, of Grassroots Leadership.
But with last weekend’s immigration raids, she said: “We found, though, that a lot of the actions happened so quickly that a lot of times folks arrived there and it would already be gone, already be done, so that’s definitely something to think about.”
News of a surge in immigration enforcement activity in Austin began to spread on social media on Thursday. Ice said that 51 people were arrested in the San Antonio-Austin area; 23 of them had criminal convictions. Though the agency said it does not set up checkpoints or conduct indiscriminate sweeps, that the majority of those detained did not have convictions will add to anxiety among unauthorised immigrants that they are now at increased risk of deportation even if they are not viewed as dangerous.
Parker said that the number of detentions was “extremely beyond the norm” and led to a flood of calls to a hotline where callers can report Ice activity and seek advice. “We’ll usually have one or two calls every day or couple days, something like that. And we had hundreds of calls over the past three or four days,” she said.
Parker claimed that Austin was singled out because the liberal-leaning city has led the fightback in Texas against attempts by the state and federal governments to compel local authorities to co-operate with immigration enforcement. Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, this month cut off $1.5m in criminal justice grants to Travis County, which includes Austin, because the sheriff is limiting the circumstances in which her department will hold suspects for Ice agents.
“There’s been a lot of progress here locally in the immigrant community being able to fight for and win some good policies at the local level, some people call us a sanctuary city because of that,” Parker said. “From the governor to apparently now the federal government, folks want to make an example out of Austin for having the audacity to disagree.”
On the Sunday morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Austin Mayor Steve Adler stood in blue jeans and a white button-down shirt before a crowd outside of City Hall. "I understand that you're angry and scared, hurt and confused," he said, pausing so an interpreter could translate his words from English to Spanish. "Many of us are. And that includes me."
Immigrants and allies, also wearing white, had gathered to protest one of then-President-elect Trump's most alarming campaign promises: plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Austin welcomes immigrants and will stand with them, Adler said, before offering his reassurance in Spanish himself. "Quiero que sepan que sus líderes, en este edificio que se encuentra a nuestras espaldas, nos comprometemos a la seguridad de ustedes y de sus familias," he said. "You need to know that your leaders, in the building behind us, are committed to your safety and your family's."
But throughout his speech, Adler did something interesting. The mayor never referred to Austin as a sanctuary city.
The term "sanctuary city" is a controversial, evocative, and vague one. It bears no legal standard or definition. It's wholly interpretable. For some, the phrase conjures images of the early Christian church offering refuge to the desperate. For others, it alludes to a set of concrete policies that limit a city's cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In recent years, "sanctuary city" has become a bogeyman for GOP lawmakers, who use it in statements and stump speeches to typify a threat to local safety – or, worse, a symbol of defiance that they will punish. While cities like San Francisco have proudly declared themselves sanctuaries, Austin lawmakers have shied from its use since at least 1985, avoiding the lightning-rod term in favor of more neutral phrasing like "welcoming city."
"Sanctuary city" routinely pits cities against states, as evidenced here in Travis County. On Feb. 1, the Travis County jail stopped releasing inmates to federal immigration authorities – a so-called "sanctuary policy" introduced by the county's new sheriff, Sally Hernandez. That same morning, Gov. Greg Abbott cut $1.5 million in criminal justice grants to Travis County in response to Hernandez's policy. Members of both the state's Senate and House of Representatives have filed anti-sanctuary bills this session – bills that would dramatically affect public safety operations in every Texas city. President Trump has put forth an executive order that would force local law enforcement to cooperate with federal authorities, and even take on the role of immigration agents.
The groundswell raises an important question: Moving forward, what will "sanctuary city" mean to Austin?
"Is Austin a sanctuary city?" Sulma Franco considers the question from a booth at a noisy Waffle House, pausing over a plate of eggs. The Guatemalan activist raises her eyebrows: "No," she says, jabbing her fork in the air to punctuate. "No, no, no, no."
Ironically, it is Franco who brought sanctuary to Austin's religious communities. Facing deportation orders, in 2015 she walked through the doors of the First Universalist Unitarian Church and stayed there for 10 weeks until her legal case was temporarily resolved, thus becoming the first person in Texas to claim church sanctuary since the Eighties (see "New Name, Same Game," July 10, 2015). But Franco persists: "The Latino community does not feel that Austin is a sanctuary city – por nada. Not at all."
Fearing deportation, Austin's undocumented immigrants do not feel safe in their daily lives, says Franco. She explains a term widely used in the city's Latino community: polimigra. It's a blend of the Spanish words for "police" and "immigration," reflecting the notion that the two law enforcement entities – one local, one federal – are, in fact, one and the same.
That perception has roots in reality, says Franco. Greg Hamilton, Hernandez's predecessor, who served as sheriff from 2005 through 2016, made no bones about his willingness to work with ICE, the deportation arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under its Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which in 2015 expanded the Bush-era program known as Secure Communities (S-Comm), immigration authorities ask local jails – which are usually run by the county sheriff's department – to hold people after they've been ordered released. These "detainers," as they're called, give ICE time to investigate inmates' immigration statuses and transfer them to a detention center, possibly deporting them.
Federal courts have ruled that ICE detainer requests are just that – requests. During Hamilton's tenure, Travis County honored every such request, resulting in some of the highest deportation rates in the country, according to a 2014 resolution from City Council. Until 2009, the Travis County jail fielded less than 10 detainer requests each year, according to records held by the sheriff's department. That number has since skyrocketed: In the two years between 2012 and 2014, said Council's resolution, Hamilton complied with roughly 5,500 detainers, nearly three-fourths of which were for people whose criminal charges were eventually dropped. In the four years between June 2009 and June 2014, an average of 19 people were deported from the county each week. The Austin American-Statesman reported that nearly 10,000 ICE detainers have been issued in the last decade – more than half for people charged with one misdemeanor. ICE rarely sends warrants with detainers, says professor Elissa Steglich at UT School of Law's immigration clinic. That, in and of itself, is a violation of residents' Fourth Amendment rights to proper search and seizure.
That all changed with Hernandez's election, and, in turn, her Jan. 20 announcement. "Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE," the sheriff, previously a county constable in Precinct 3, said in her filmed statement. She later told the Chronicle: "We in law enforcement have had a difficult time with trust in our community and especially in our communities of color. And so the ability to have these communities feel like it's safe to call and cooperate with us – I feel like it's going to have a huge impact."
Offering shelter and support can prove complicated when authorities are involved, said Rev. Babs Miller, a minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, part of the Austin Sanctuary Network. Since early 2016, St. Andrew's has housed Hilda Ramirez and her son Ivan, a Guatemalan family fleeing death threats and domestic violence. Both held deportation orders that have recently been paused. "We said we wanted to support them and that we were willing to offer sanctuary," Miller recalled. "We said that having no idea what it really meant."
Though many faith communities have offered support to undocumented immigrants, not every house of worship has the resolve or resources to house those fighting their deportation orders in court. St. Andrew's congregants asked themselves what a family in hiding might need. The ministers called for donations; clothing and furniture poured in. Volunteer tutors arrived for both mother and son. When the church threw Ivan a birthday party, residents from the nearby apartment complex brought cakes. The boy's eyes were big, Miller recalled: He'd never had a party, let alone a bouncy castle.
There was also the day-to-day of sanctuary, full of unexpected hang-ups. The sink installed in the converted Sunday school classroom was too high for the tiny woman and boy to reach. The church began to lock its doors. As time passed, Miller said, "the church community gained a great deal more understanding of the immigration system." She spread her hands across the table where she sits, her fingers stretching wide. "You start doing justice work in one area, and it just grows."
As Trump's crackdown on immigration unfolds, the Austin Sanctuary Network has seen requests for sanctuary increase. There may come a day, Miller said, when there is "no room at the inn." Besides, no city or even state can restrict federal authorities from arresting noncitizens – regardless of local law enforcement's cooperation. So they have begun to expand their tactics: Sanctuary in the Streets, a newly formed group modeled after one of the same name in Philadelphia, stands ready to erect its own kind of wall in Austin: a barrier of people willing to stand between immigrants and ICE.
The network of immigrant advocates, attorneys and faith groups is now 150 people strong and growing. New volunteers assembled for a training session in early January at St. Andrew's. "Policy has never saved us," said Alejandro Caceres, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, who spoke before a large group of Sanctuary in the Streets trainees. Behind him stood an easel marked up with promises from Trump's campaign: Build a wall. Muslim registry. Deport 11 million. Punish sanctuary cities. "We have to rely on ourselves," said Caceres.
"Sanctuary is not passive," he said during a later interview. "Sanctuary is active. We're struggling, we're fighting alongside you. We're saying, 'This person's life matters more to me than the law.' ... It's an act of resistance."
Sanctuary in the Streets does not intend to wait for people to come asking for sanctuary. Rather, the organization aims to disrupt future raids. Rev. Miller told the Chronicle the group practices this scenario: An undocumented immigrant refuses to let an ICE agent into her home without a warrant; she calls a hotline (512/270-1515) that sends a small group of volunteers to the scene. Politely and silently, three or four people edge between the agent and the door, standing shoulder to shoulder. Only one speaks. "We are trained and certified immigration observers," the volunteer will say, as another stands nearby and films. "We have been notified that there is a situation to be observed. May I see your warrant please?"
In training sessions, Miller often plays the role of immigration officer. Sometimes she plays good cop; sometimes she is less lenient. "Does your husband know that you're doing this?" she'll ask one of the role-players, trying to rattle them. She wants to prepare volunteers – mostly white U.S. citizens – for an experience many have never had. "They don't live in a world where cops and immigration officers are confrontational and abusive toward them," said Miller. "I'm trying to help them understand it won't be like, 'Did you realize your blinkers are out, sir?'"
The volunteers must decide what to do if the agent threatens to arrest them, said Miller. Do they stand aside? Or do they stay put, and force the immigration official, who lacks the authority to arrest U.S. citizens, to call for police assistance? "We are using our white privilege to slow down the process," Miller said, noting that it doubles as an effort to buy time for reporters to arrive.
"Enforcement officers do not like media coverage," said Miller.
The reverend stressed that Sanctuary in the Streets' methods are nonviolent, though they are confrontational. "You can play nice and still go after the abuse of power," she said.
Sanctuary in the Streets may be the closest Austin has come to the spirit of the Eighties' Sanctuary Movement, which embraced civil disobedience. Then, the network of churches, synagogues, and safe houses stretched from Mexico to Arizona to Canada, sheltering and transporting roughly 1 million refugees. In Texas, sanctuary workers drove to the border to pick up Central Americans fleeing civil wars and genocides that activists accused the United States of fomenting. Informants infiltrated their network, stoking division and paranoia. Eighteen people – including nuns, priests, and a minister – were jailed and indicted for smuggling aliens.
Miller is hopeful that today's circumstances won't reach that point. Immigrants in 2017 have more grassroots support, she said. The Eighties movement came before the internet and was more isolated. The shift toward a more resistant strand of sanctuary is a result of that effort. "We're standing on their shoulders," Miller said.
When Sulma Franco declared sanctuary in the Unitarian church, she was not well-versed in this history. She calls her stay a mistake-filled learning process. But while the declaration was a cry for help, it was also a show of strength. With the help of her girlfriend and UT students, Franco built the chain-link fence that surrounded her church living quarters. "I wanted to show other women that we don't have to be scared all the time, that we can do something to defend ourselves."
Hilda Ramirez and her son followed Franco's lead. Though 28, Ramirez appears younger, with round cheeks and a quiet, measured way of speaking Spanish. Mam, an indigenous language, is her native tongue.
Ramirez was fearful when she first came to St. Andrew's. She jumped at small noises and anxiously watched the sheriff's patrol cars that were camped outside, knowing their presence was routine but still unable to shake the feeling that sheriff's deputies were watching her. Having spent 11 months in a family detention center with her son just seven months before that, she felt terribly sad to be confined again – even in a kind place like St. Andrew's. During her first week, Ramirez recalled, pastors asked if she wanted to meet the congregation. Ramirez said no. "I stayed in my room," she said, pulling her arms close as if clutching a blanket. The second Sunday, she was ready to meet the church.
Rev. Miller believes Ramirez's arrival made it clear to the congregants what was at stake with sanctuary. "What will you do if Immigration comes?" Caceres asked the churchgoers. He pretended to be an ICE officer. "We're here for Hilda Ramirez," he called out into the church.
The members began to move. Ramirez suddenly found herself in a circle deep with people. Some blocked the doorway. Others formed an outer ring. More pushed closer, she recalled, linking elbows together, saying to her, "We're not going to let them take you. You're safe."
"I'd felt so alone," Ramirez said, her slow-moving Spanish suddenly picking up pace, animating. "And now there was everyone, who'd come to protect me without even knowing me. All, all of the church! I'm so small – all I could see was their backs. I felt so much joy. I was crying. There I was made invincible." Read more about Sanctuary Cities and the Ways We Fight for Human Rights
Protests have erupted across the US after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency swept across several US cities, detaining undocumented migrants.
Early Friday's raids came quickly after President Donald Trump signed three executive orders on Thursday reportedly aimed at crime reduction.
Los Angeles, Austin and Phoenix have all seen demonstrations.
In Austin, at least five undocumented residents have been detained.
Cristina Parker, the immigration programmes director at Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which organises against deportations and mass incarceration, informed Al Jazeera there may be more.
"Everyone is scrambling to get information. There are unconfirmed reports of detentions across the city. Those who are most affected by these actions are the hardest to get in contact with, currently," Parker said.
Austin has been the epicentre of the national battle over so-called sanctuary cities, an unofficial designation of cities that generally offer safety to undocumented migrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
According to local reports, the ICE detained each of the five in separate, targeted raids. Read more about Protests over detention of immigrants across US
Multiple accounts of immigration arrests have been reported in California, North Carolina, and Texas, among other states, according to numerous sources. Advocates working to confirm the identities of those detained say the suspected raids mark the beginning of President Trump’s mass deportation efforts.
As news of suspected raids travels on social media from around the country, attorneys and advocates are left wondering if such arrests will be the “new normal” under the Trump administration. In a press release, Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based immigration advocacy organization, said that “Trump’s deportation force” has hit Austin, with multiple undocumented immigrants targeted in an ICE raid. Much is still unknown about the populations taken into ICE custody, but there are reports in Spanish media outlets that at least some of the immigrants targeted did not have criminal records.
Cristina Parker, Grassroots Leadership’s immigration programs director, told Rewire in an email that her organization is working to confirm the identities of those detained in Austin. She suspects ICE sought out immigrants with prior orders of removal during the mass arrests, a practice that was common under President Obama. Read more about Have Trump’s Mass Deportations Begun? Immigration Arrests Reported Around the Country
Immigration advocates are mobilizing following reports of a number of arrests by Immigration and Customs enforcement agents in Austin over the past 24 hours.
“These ICE actions are politically motivated and morally bankrupt attempts to punish our community for standing up for our collective civil rights,” City Council Member Greg Casar said at a press conference with Delia Garza outside Little Walnut Creek Branch Library. “They are attempts to silence us, and these are attempts to strike fear into our hearts. But we will not be silenced.”
Casar was referring, in part, to a policy change at the Travis County Jail, which will no longer honor detainer requests from ICE as of Feb. 1.
A hotline had been set up for community remembers to report ICE action in Austin. Grassroots Leadership, a national immigration advocacy group based in Texas, said it is rallying to let people affected by the actions know that "they will not be alone.” Read more about After ICE Actions, Advocates Mobilize in Support of Austin-Area Immigrants
WHEN: Thursday, February 9, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: JJ Pickle Federal Building, 300 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701
(AUSTIN, Texas) — Trump’s deportation force hit the Austin community today with reports coming from around the city of individuals being apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Below is a statement in Spanish and English from the ICE Out of Austin campaign: Read more about BREAKING: Vigil for Austin families separated by Trump’s deportation force