As Hamilton’s run as sheriff comes to an end, looking back at the Immigrant-Led campaign that changed what was possible in Travis County

By Alejandro Caceres and Carmen Zuvieta

On Monday, the deadline for candidates to register, current Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton did not file for reelection.  This means that we will have a new Travis County Sheriff and a new person in charge of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) in 2017. This new sheriff could potentially end the collaboration between our local sheriff’s office and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), a policy we have been fighting for years. Hamilton’s journey from being one of the most popular elected officials in Travis County to becoming unelectable in the county that he has served for 12 years is a story that starts four years ago and ends with a clear message to elected officials in Travis County and the City of Austin.

Sheriff Hamilton was elected in the 2004 elections. Five years later, Hamilton implemented the controversial Secure Communities (S-Comm) program in the Travis County Jails. During that time community advocates met with him behind closed doors several times to try to talk to him about opting out of Secure Communities, and for five years Sheriff Hamilton ignored those demands. In 2012 Sheriff Greg Hamilton ran for reelection and defeated his only Democratic opponent handly, receiving 72% of the vote. Hamilton went on to win the general election by receiving 60% of the vote from Travis County residents.

For years, we signed petitions, met with local officials, and tried to speak to Sheriff Hamilton politely about the damage that his office and ICE were doing to the immigrant community by continuing to deport our friends, families, and neighbours. Then, we decided that the strategy that we had been using was not going to work. In 2014 a different type of campaign was born, one with a strategy that mirrored the urgent tone to the deportation crisis in the community, one that centered the voices and experiences of the immigrants in Travis County, and one that made Travis County residents aware of the morally bankrupt position that TCSO held. On the morning of February 3rd, 2014, six members of the #19toomany campaign shut down the Travis County Jail for almost two hours in an act of civil disobedience. This action was followed by a vigil outside of the Travis County Sheriff’s office on Airport Boulevard, which was then followed by a Valentine’s Day flash mob at the Travis County Commissioners Court, and finally in February with the biggest candidates’ forum during the primary elections for County Commissioners. That month of actions set the tone for Travis County residents and officials: the immigrant community would not remain quiet, we would fight until the end and that remaining neutral during this deportation crisis was to be complicit in TCSO’s immoral position on ICE collaboration.

Local elected officials and Travis County residents began to mirror the courage and the strength of the leaders of the campaign. On April 30, 2014, the Travis County Democratic Party passed a resolution condemning the TCSO’s practice of honoring immigration detainers and called for TCSO to end the collaboration with ICE. On June 26, the Austin City Council passed a resolution written by immigrant community members living in Travis County condemning the the collaboration of TCSO and ICE, reaffirming the city’s anti-deportation position and directing the city manager to look for ways that the city could opt out of collaborating with ICE if the Sheriff’s office would not. Then came the Obama’s Executive Action in November, which announced the end of Secure Communities and the renaming it Priority Enforcement Program (PEP-comm).

2015 brought a new year, a new City Council, and a new Commissioners Court but TCSO would not end their collaboration with ICE. On January 26, 2015 the Travis County Commissioners court called on TCSO to report on their collaboration with ICE since President Obama’s announcement. At that hearing, Sheriff Hamilton admitted that the only thing that was changed was the name and that the deportations out of Travis County Jail continued under PEP-Comm.

On October 8, the city added an amendment to the interlocal agreement with Travis County reiterating that community’s pro-immigrant values should be reflected at the processing center while County officials mused that the County Jail could be rented to the city if TCSO did not change their position on ICE. Travis County Commissioners agreed to the amendment on October 20th. The message in the City of Austin and Travis County was clear; any candidate for sheriff could not be pro-deportation and be a viable candidate. With the state and local Democratic party, elected officials and voters moving away from TCSO’s policy, Hamilton made his decision not to run in a political environment that could no longer tolerate his collaboration with ICE.

Because of the leadership of immigrants in Travis County and the #19toomany campaign, there are consequences to not being pro-immigrant in Travis County. And those consequences could not be more clear than they are in the Travis County Sheriff’s race where all four Democratic candidates have stated their position as being anti-deportation and against police collaboration with ICE.

The last two years and Hamilton’s decision show us that the immigrant community has effected local politics and sent a clear message: you cannot trample on our rights, you cannot refuse to listen to our suffering and still believe you can hold office. The campaign was never against Sheriff Greg Hamilton personally, but against a mass deportation policy and a refusal to listen to the immigrant community's needs.