bob libal

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 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?

Feb 24, 2017
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Rewire

Sessions: Contract With Private Prison Companies That Gave to Trump Campaign

The Department of Justice (DOJ) last year announced the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would no longer contract with private prison corporations. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday instructed the Bureau to once again rely on these companies, which contributed large sums to President Trump’s 2016 campaign and his inauguration.

The DOJ in August cited private prisons’ failure to maintain adequate levels of safety and security as a primary reason to no longer contract with these companies. Privately run prison facilities have more incidents of violence than their public counterparts, according to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Private corrections facilities experience 65 percent more prisoner-to-prisoner assaults and 49 percent more assaults on staff than public facilities.

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As Austin-based immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership noted in a statement about Sessions’ announcement, most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. These prisons hold noncitizens, most of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border.

“Today’s announcement likely marks a recommitment to the use of segregated federal prisons for non-citizens. CAR facilities have been racked with scandals and prison uprisings for years, including at theinfamous Tent City detention center in Willacy County, Texas,” Grassroots Leadership reportedCAR prisons were the focus of a recent investigation by the Nation about poor medical care resulting in in-custody deaths.

After the DOJ decision in August, advocates hoped that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would follow suit. That same month, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson tasked the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) with evaluating “whether the immigration detention operations conducted by ICE should move in the same direction” as the DOJ. It was announced in December that ICE would continue contracting with private prison companies. The announcement did not come as a surprise to advocates, as Trump had just been elected, vowing to drastically expand the already unruly detention system.

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The Intercept reported that Geo Group was one of the first large, publicly-traded firms to make a hefty campaign contribution to Trump, giving $50,000 to a pro-Trump Super PAC and $45,000 to the Trump campaign via the “Trump Victory fund, a joint fundraising committee between Trump and various state Republican Party groups.” CoreCivic donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.

Grassroots Leadership’s Executive Director Bob Libal in a statement cited Sessions’ announcement as yet another act by the Trump administration that undermines criminal justice reforms and civil rights for incarcerated people.

“This administration appears to be more interested in lining the coffers of its friends at private prison corporations than promoting common sense policies that would reduce the incarcerated population and close troubled prisons,” Libal said. Read more about Sessions: Contract With Private Prison Companies That Gave to Trump Campaign

Feb 17, 2017
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The Daily Texan

Hundreds protest downtown for national "Day Without Immigrants" strike

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. 

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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.

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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

Feb 11, 2017
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Herald Net

Chaotic immigrant sweep causing panic across the US this week

U.S. immigration authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants in at least a half-dozen states this week in a series of raids that marked the first large-scale enforcement of President Donald Trump’s Jan. 26 order to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally.

The raids, which officials said targeted known criminals, also netted some immigrants who did not have criminal records, an apparent departure from similar enforcement waves during former President Barack Obama’s administration that aimed to just corral and deport those who had committed crimes.

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Immigration activists said the crackdown went beyond the six states DHS identified, and said they had also documented ICE raids of unusual intensity during the past two days in Florida, Kansas, Texas and Northern Virginia.

That undocumented immigrants with no criminal records were arrested and could potentially be deported sent a shock through immigrant communities nationwide amid concerns that the U.S. government could start going after law-abiding people.

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A video that circulated on social media Friday appeared to show ICE agents detaining people in an Austin shopping center parking lot. Immigration advocates also reported roadway checkpoints, where ICE appeared to be targeting immigrants for random ID checks, in North Carolina and in Austin. ICE officials denied that authorities used checkpoints during the operations.

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Immigration officials acknowledged that authorities had cast a wider net than they would have last year, as the result of Trump’s executive order.

The Trump administration is facing a series of legal challenges to that order, and on Thursday lost a court battle over a separate executive order to temporarily ban entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, as well as by refugees. The administration said Friday that it is considering raising the case to the Supreme Court.

Some activists in Austin and Los Angeles suggested that the raids might be retaliation for those cities’ so-called “sanctuary city” policies. A government aide familiar with the raids said it is possible the predominantly daytime operations – a departure from the Obama administration’s night raids – meant to “send a message to the community that the Trump deportation force is in effect.”

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“We’re trying to make sure that families who have been impacted are getting legal services as quickly as possible. We’re trying to do some legal triage,” said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which provides assistance and advocacy work to immigrants in Austin. “It’s chaotic,” he said. The organization’s hotline, he said, had been overwhelmed with calls. Read more about Chaotic immigrant sweep causing panic across the US this week

Jan 30, 2017
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Texas Observor

Taking Shelter

FOR DECADES, RESIDENTIAL SHELTERS HAVE OPERATED AS HUMANE ALTERNATIVES TO IMMIGRANT DETENTION. COULD THEY WORK ON A LARGER SCALE?

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Residential shelters, in contrast, are based on a model that stresses humane treatment. They offer freedom of movement and a sense of community. Immigrants in shelters also have a dramatically better shot at finding legal representation and winning their cases.

Yet the federal government has shown little appetite for embracing such a model, instead expanding its detention regime. In October 2016, the detainee population hit an all-time high of42,000.

ICE does have a $126 million alternatives-to-detention program, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP, but it’s run by a for-profit company and relies on punitive methods, such as GPS ankle monitors, rather than residential shelters.

Advocates for more humane alternatives faced a setback when President Trump won the election.Private prison corporations saw their stocks soar immediately after his victory. In his first week in office, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish new detention centers along the border, begin construction of a wall and swell the ranks of Border Patrol and ICE.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin group that fights private prisons, said he predicts another round of growth for the immigrant detention regime. But that doesn’t mean he’s given up hope.

“Trump is volatile; he doesn’t know when he wakes up in the morning what he’s going to do,” Libal said. “There’s a fiscal argument to be made that might still hold sway.”

 
 
Read more about Taking Shelter
Jan 28, 2017
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NPR

Austin Sheriff Says She'll Limit Cooperation With Federal Immigration Authorities

Trump's war on sanctuary cities is playing out in Austin, Texas. The sheriff vowed to defy federal demand to turn over immigrants in the country illegally. The governor is threatening to remove her.

SALLY HERNANDEZ: The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local, public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement. Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers.

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BURNETT: With this action, Travis County joins 300 other jurisdictions around the country, such as New York City, Chicago and the state of California, that reject ICE detainers. These are requests by ICE to local law enforcement to hold unauthorized immigrants in jail so federal agents can decide whether to pick them up for possible deportation. In deep-red, law-and-order Texas, the sheriff's announcement, which she campaigned on, was akin to kicking a fire ant mound. Republican Governor Greg Abbott's response was swift. He spoke to FOX News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: She would give sanctuary to people who are in the United States illegally, who've been convicted of crimes in the past, of heinous crimes like armed robbery. They could have been operating in conjunction with drug cartels, and she would not cooperate with ICE whatsoever.

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Bob Libal is director of an immigrant human rights group in Austin called Grassroots Leadership. He points to studies that show noncitizens commit crimes and go to jail at about the same or lesser rate as citizens do. He sees the president's and the governor's offensive against sanctuary cities as scapegoating immigrants.

BOB LIBAL: It's simply playing on a cheap kind of anti-immigrant bigotry.

... Read more about Austin Sheriff Says She'll Limit Cooperation With Federal Immigration Authorities

Jan 26, 2017
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Vice News

Cell High: Trump's immigration orders will make private prisons filthy rich

Private prison companies just hit the jackpot.

While attention was focused Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s orders to start building the border wall and cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, another aspect of his decree went mostly overlooked: Trump effectively gave the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to expand immigrant detention.

His executive order authorizes the department to “allocate all legally available resources” to “establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” That means paying private prison companies like CoreCivic and the GEO Group to open new facilities to keep up with the Trump administration’s draconian “enforcement priorities” on immigration.

“It’s worse than we even imagined,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes private prisons. “It’s the policy manifestation of all the ugly bigotry that Trump spewed on the campaign trail.”

The Trump administration’s enforcement priorities, also outlined in Wednesday’s executive order, will likely ensnare hundreds of thousands of people, including asylum seekers who present themselves at the border, undocumented immigrants who have merely been accused of crimes but not found guilty, and others convicted of petty offenses like driving without a license. All of those people could end up being locked up indefinitely — and the current detention facilities are already at capacity.

... Read more about Cell High: Trump's immigration orders will make private prisons filthy rich

Jan 24, 2017
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The Austin American Statesman

Like in Travis County, Dallas County sheriff incurred Abbott’s wrath

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez knows what it’s like to get a letter from the governor.

In 2015, Valdez announced that her office would no longer provide blanket compliance with federal immigration officials seeking to intercept unauthorized immigrants at local jails for possible deportation.

Her new policy raised ire from numerous fronts in a deeply red Texas. And, like recently sworn-in Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Valdez quickly became the recipient of a letter from Gov. Greg Abbott with harsh criticism.

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Abbott threatened Monday to cut off state criminal justice grant funding to Travis County unless Hernandez rescinds a policy that would limit detention requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and would end ICE agents’ unfettered access to the Travis County Jail. Travis County received $1.8 million in criminal justice grant funding from the state last year.

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Hernandez’s policy is more specific. According to Hernandez, the Travis County Jail will only honor ICE detention requests, or “detainers,” on people charged or convicted of capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking. All other detainer requests would require a court order or warrant.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, called Hernandez’s policy the most progressive in the state. It comes closer to similar policies adopted in Colorado and Oregon.

Hernandez had long promised to end Travis County’s cooperation with ICE. She announced her policy Friday as celebrations and protests of President Donald Trump’s inauguration were underway. In recent years, ICE has relaxed its policy on detaining undocumented immigrants at jails, but that could be changed with the stroke of a pen from Trump. Read more about Like in Travis County, Dallas County sheriff incurred Abbott’s wrath

Jan 20, 2017
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The Huffington Post

Austin Area Becomes Immigrant ‘Sanctuary’ As Trump Inaugurated

 The Travis County Sheriff’s Office announced a new policy Friday of limiting cooperation with detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants.  

The changes, which make Austin a so-called sanctuary jurisdiction for deportable migrants, puts incoming Sheriff Sally Hernandez at odds with both President Donald Trump and Republicans in the Texas Legislature who are pushing bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants. And just hours after Hernandez’s announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to cut state funding to Travis County.

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Bob Libal, the director of the immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, cheered the Travis County policy, describing it as the culmination of years of pressure from activists.  

“This sends a really loud and clear message that Travis County is against the mass deportation of our community members,” Libal told The Huffington Post. “And that is an incredibly important message to send today as Donald Trump is inaugurated, promising mass deportations and human rights violations in the immigrant community.”

The group is still pressing for further limitations to ICE holds and to restrict local police from asking about immigration status, however.

Supporters of limiting ICE holds contend that using local law enforcement agencies to help with federal immigration undermines trust in immigrant communities, drains local resources and unfairly ensnares victims of crime into the deportation process. In cases of domestic abuse, for example, police sometimes arrest both parties after an altercation. Read more about Austin Area Becomes Immigrant ‘Sanctuary’ As Trump Inaugurated

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