On February 22, 2014, Grassroots Leadership, the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition and supporters hosted a candidates forum at Faith Presbyterian Church. More than 200 people attended, comprised of members of the immigrant community, advocates, people of faith and other community members. Brigid Shea, Richard Jung, and Garry Brown, all of whom are vying for the Precinct 2 County Commission seat, were in attendance. Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt, both of whom are running for Travis Count Judge, also attended. Each candidate addressed the community's concerns and offered methods by which they, if elected, would ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers are no longer honored in Travis County.
Each candidate answered questions from the audience regarding the deportation crisis perpetuated by Secure Communities, a federal program with which Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton complies. The program is allegedly meant to deport immigrants who are arrested for serious crimes. Seventy-seven percent of immigrants deported through Secure Communities, however, do not have a criminal record, and are often booked into the Travis County jail for petty offenses, such as driving without a license or having a broken tail light. Shea clearly disapproves of Secure Communities:
"It’s not who we are as a community…to use taxpayer dollars to split up families and to be sending people away from their loved ones for frivolous issues. And using those as a pretense for pulling people over and doing racial profiling, which sounds to me is happening even though our law enforcement people say they are not doing it.
Shea was quite blunt in her previous statements as well, claiming "I won't fund this."
Richard Jung, an immigration lawyer and first generation immigrant, had strong words for Sheriff Greg Hamilton's interpretation of the law: " know Sheriff Hamilton is wrong. His interpretation is wrong. You know why? ‘Cause all of these states, counties and cities are supposedly violating federal law, and the federal government has done nothing about it.” Jung followed up with a concrete plan of action:
"The first thing I’m gonna do is go to the city council and tell them, ‘You need to exit the inter-local agreement that allows the sheriff to run the county jail. The city should take charge of the people that APD arrests because the city has a policy already in place says that they will not cooperate with S-Comm type of rules."
Sarah Eckhardt, who is running for County Judge, also pointed out that portions of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy are optional:
"We do not need another opinion about the discretionary nature of this program, ICE itself has admitted that this is discretionary. We don't need to wait for an Attorney General opinion or the US Attorney's opinion or the County Attorney's opinion or more Harvard Law professors' opinions or the University of Texas Law professors' opinions, we already have them and I am grateful for those opinions. … If the sheriff still doesn't change his mind, its not another politician we need trying to get him to change his mind, it's another sheriff"
Andy Brown, also a candidate for County Judge, took another approach to addressing the policy, reminding the audience of the public safety concerns caused by Secure Communities. He told the crowd in Spanish:
"One of the worst things about the S-Comm program is that the people here don't feel secure in calling the police if they have problem at tier house or another location. For this and other reasons, this is a very bad policy. … I believe that Travis County should be a place where a family like yours, like mine can work, can have dreams and have long-term dreams but with the S-Comm program, that isn't possible."
Many thanks to those who put in countless hours to make this event a success: Alejandro Caceres and the Austin Immigrant Righs Coalition; Amelia Ruiz Fischer of the Texas Civil Rights Project; Nora De La Rosa for moderating the forum; Andrew Willis Garces; Bob Libal, Cristina Parker and Eleana Diaz of Grassroots Leadership; Faith Presbyterian Church, for their generosity in allowing us to use their sanctuary; and everyone involved in the 19 Too Many campaign.
We intend to hold those elected on March 4 to their promises and delcarations made at the forum.