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
In the aftermath of local and federal elections Tuesday, area immigration advocates are expressing their concern about the future of the issue in Travis County.
“As the night went forward, we realized this sort of sickening feeling, of like, ‘Oh no, I think that Donald Trump is going to win this,’” explained Alejandro Caceres, an Immigration Organizer for Grassroots Leadership in Austin. “There’s a sudden fear of what happens to me tomorrow.”
Among his fears, Caceres says President-elect Donald Trump’s goals for his first day working in the Oval Office are concerning. According to NBC, Trump said he would:
- Cancel funding to “sanctuary cities”
- Remove illegal immigrants and cancel visas to countries that refuse to take them back, and
- Suspend immigration from “terror-prone” regions of the world.
“The president is coming after us,” said Caceres. “There’s people in the United States who actually feel targeted by the president of the United States… for either deportation, for stripping you of your rights, it is very terrifying.”
Caceres said members of immigrant community groups are fearful of a return to the past. “We’ve gained so many victories in the eight years that Obama has been here, and now we’re in threat of going back. Now we’re in threat of having a program like Secure Communities over again.”
Caceres said the relief he felt after learning Democrat Sally Hernandez had won the election for Travis County Sheriff was only short-lived, clouded by Trump’s success in the race for the White House.
“We do have a local victory and we can push for something that would be really, really great in the state of Texas and the city of Austin, but at the same time, now we have a president who is one hundred times worse than Greg Hamilton,” he said.
Regardless, Caceres said advocates must continue to fight for what they believe is justice. “We can mourn today, but tomorrow, we have to continue to organize because we don’t want to go back to where we were four, eight years ago.”Read more about Immigration advocates torn between Travis Co. sheriff, Trump wins
With Democratic Constable Sally Hernandez assured of victory in the race for Travis County sheriff Tuesday night, the liberal enclave in the center of Texas could be in the crosshairs of state lawmakers who want to ban so-called "sanctuary city" policies.
Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer for Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice reform group, said he welcomed working with a new sheriff. The current one, Democrat Greg Hamilton, riled activists and fellow elected officials with his unapologetic embrace of cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“We know that now we have a sheriff that is wiling to negotiate with us, unlike Sheriff Hamilton who has been a massive defender of this policy,” Caceres said. "We are more than happy and willing to sit down and talk with her.” Read more about Travis County sheriff's race likely to bring immigration policy shift
Voters elected Sally Hernandez for Travis County Sheriff in a landslide victory to succeed the 12-year incumbent Greg Hamilton.
As sheriff, Hernandez said she plans to address the Priority Enforcement Program, a program implemented by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to monitor Travis County jail inmates who may be in the U.S. illegally.
“As Sheriff, I will be committed to treating everyone equally and fairly,” Hernandez said in an email. “I think that today’s vote shows that this community wants an ICE policy that is progressive and keeps families together. It makes our community safer.”
Alejandro Caceres, Grassroots Leadership immigration organizer, said they will have a greater chance of reforming the immigration enforcement policies with Hernandez in office.
“For the first time in recent memory we believe that we can sit down and talk to our sheriff about a new policy for Travis County,” Caceres said in a press release. “We are not only celebrating Hamilton’s departure but also the departure of his policies that have torn the immigrant community apart for years.” Read more about Travis County elects Hernandez as new sheriff
WHAT: Going away party for Sheriff Hamilton and his policy of helping ICE with deportations
WHO: Immigrant community members and their supporters
WHEN: Wednesday, November 9th, 7:00 pm
WHERE: Travis County Sheriff’s office, 5555 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78751 Read more about The ICE out of Austin campaign is throwing a goodbye party for Sheriff Hamilton
Read more about Guatemalans sheltering in US church avoid deportation
Mother and son win appeal against deportation order after taking sanctuary in a Texas church for eight months.
In the back of the sanctuary sat Hilda Ramirez, a 28-year-old Guatemalan who fled her native country in 2014 with the hope of finding security for her son, Ivan.
At a time when immigration and mass deportations of undocumented people has become a central issue in the US presidential elections, Hilda and her son are a rare example of a successful appeal against a deportation order.
There are at least four people who have been granted sanctuary in four churches in the US, according to the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership immigrant rights advocacy group.
Read more about Travis County Jail at election-year crossroads on immigration policy
The era of full cooperation with federal immigration authorities at the Travis County Jail is poised to come to an end in January with the likely election of Constable Sally Hernandez, the Democratic candidate for sheriff who has said she won’t honor all requests to turn over undocumented immigrants.
“This is years in the making,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership. “If whoever the sheriff is adopts a policy like many of these other communities around the country that limits ICE’s ability, that is a good thing for immigrants, and it is a good thing for public safety.”
Lower-level crimes that result in detainers continue to worry immigrant advocates. Libal said ICE programs can still break up families and exacerbate the challenges immigrant families already face.
“It breeds distrust and makes them reluctant to report crimes,” he said. “If someone serves their time and is rehabilitated, why deport them?”
A Guatemalan mom and son who have been living in Sanctuary in Austin have finally received a form of deportation relief for the next year. Hilda Ramirez and her son Ivan had been living in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for the past 8 months under threat of deportation back to Guatemala. Hilda and her son came to the U.S. in August of 2014 seeking asylum, and spent the next 11 months in the for-profit Karnes Family Residential Facility. Hilda and Ivan were then released from Karnes due to a separate Special Immigrant Juvenile status that Ivan applied for, and because a federal judge had recently ruled against prolonged family detention.
Read more about Guatemala Mom, Son Win Surprise Victory for Sanctuary Movement
The two were living at an Austin-area shelter in January when the Obama administration announced a new set of removal priorities that targeted adults who entered the United States with children after May 2014. Despite Ivan’s ongoing application, an order of deportation remained active for both of them.
That’s when Ramirez connected with organizers at Austin’s Grassroots Leadership and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, where she and Ivan took sanctuary, invoking a long-standing practice in which places of worship house and advocate for immigrants, taking advantage of ICE’s policy of avoiding “sensitive locations.”
Eight months later, ICE informed the family’s lawyer that they would receive relief from deportation in the form of deferred action, which protects them for one year before they must renew the status.
“This is an important step,” said Grassroots’ immigration organizer Alejandro Caceres, “but we need to see more faith communities like St. Andrew’s standing up and saying to ICE: ‘You’ll have to get through us first.’”
Advocates, explained Caceres, had been demanding a stay of removal, a form of relief designed for immigrants who have exhausted all of their legal options and which ICE has granted to other immigrants in sanctuary. Instead, ICE granted deferred action, which is normally given to those who never went through deportation proceedings. A key difference is that Ramirez and her son will not have to attend regular ICE check-ins.
“I can only think it was the community pressure,” Caceres told the Observer, “and they just wanted to make us leave them alone.” It remains uncertain whether ICE will grant the same relief in similar cases going forward. Caceres added that the Austin movement will continue to push for permanent cancellation of removal in the case.
By Alejandro Caceres and Jorge Antonio Renaud
A recent Statesman editorial (Wanted: Sheriff who keeps Austin out of Legislature crosshairs, Sept. 24) about the race for Travis County Sheriff suggested that we cannot have both criminal justice reforms and an end to deportations in Travis County. We couldn’t disagree more. We see everyday why you cannot stack a broken immigration system on top of a broken criminal justice system and expect a more just world. Read more about Incoming sheriff can tackle criminal justice reform while stopping deportations
Hilda Ramirez is finally able to leave St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church after she and her son Ivan spent the past 8 months in sanctuary there. Hilda and Ivan were granted deferred action of one year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which means they are not at risk of deportation for the next year. Read more about Hilda and Ivan are free at last!
On Sunday, presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his plan for his first 100 days in office, which includes new mandatory minimum sentences for those who have crossed the border without documentation. These prosecutions already make up nearly half of all federal prosections annually.
The plan would create a "2-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation, and a 5-year mandatory minimum for illegally re-entering for those with felony convictions, multiple misdemeanor convictions or two or more prior deportations."
Read more about Trump's immigration plan would add another unnecessary mandatory minimum
Currently, illegal re-entry is punishable by up to two years in prison, although a prior criminal record can add more years to a sentence. Last year, Republicans in Congress introduced a bill called "Kate's Law," named after Kate Steinle, who was shot and killed by a man with several violent felonies and illegal re-entries into the country. That bill would have also strengthened sentences for illegal re-entry, but advocacy groups that oppose mandatory minimums say Trump's proposal would go even further.
Illegal entry and re-entry is already one of the most prosecuted crimes in the U.S. and sucks up an enormous amount of federal resources. According to a report by Grassroots Leadership earlier this year, prosecutions of illegal entry and re-entry into the country already makes up 49 percent of the federal caseload every year. Foreign nationals make up 22 percent of the federal Bureau of Prisons system, which was operating at 20 percent over its maximum capacity as of 2015. The current average sentence for illegal re-entry is 18 months, according to the report.
What it [mandatory minimums] can make a statistically significant impact on is the Justice Department budget. The prosecution and incarceration of illegal entry and re-entry offenders under Operation Streamline has cost $7 billion since 2005, according to the Grassroots Leadership report.