ICE caught lying — again — about their tactics and immigration raids in Austin

Sulma Franco speaks out in front of an ICE office in San Antonio on September 9. Community members from Austin, San Marcos, and San Antonio were there to demand that ICE reveal their plans (show their papers) for a planned “Operation Mega” raid.

The deceptive tactics of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dominated headlines in early October. Following multiple nation-wide raids that terrorized the community, immigrant leaders and advocates demanded information that uncovered the agency’s many lies. ICE claimed to be conducting “routine operations,” in Austin and elsewhere. That was a lie.  ICE targeted Austin with widespread and devastating raids in early February as “punishment” on the community for Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policies at the Travis County Jail.  The raids intentionally terrorized the community, separated families and led to the deportation of residents.

While the raids were underway, ICE was waging a dishonest public relations campaign to publicize alleged “egregious” crimes in order to bolster Trump’s fear-mongering rhetoric about immigrants.

In February, ICE coordinated raids in at least six states under “Operation Cross Check” as part of the Trump administration’s targeting undocumented immigrants for detention and deportation en masse. The raids arrested 680 people nationwide. ICE officials arrested 51 residents in Central Texas who were in transit, at work, in front of schools, and in public spaces such as the county courthouse.

Leaders of the immigrant community and advocates prepared the community in the event of raids by conducting Know Your Rights trainings prior to February. Hundreds of community volunteers were also trained to respond to ICE activity through the Sanctuary in the Streets initiative. During and following the raids, immigrant leaders and allies stepped up to support those affected by the traumatic event.

Carmen Zuvieta, a leader of the ICE out of Austin campaign, responded to countless calls from affected families. “Although we expected there to be ICE raids, to be honest, I never thought it’d happen with this magnitude,” Zuvieta said to the Austin American-Statesman.

The Linea de Defensa Comunitaria immigration crisis hotline for the Austin community received over 1,000 phone calls during the raids. Kelley Roberts, a volunteer with La Linea, said:

The phone calls I took during the ICE raids made it clear to me that the purpose of the raids was not to make our communities safer, but to send a clear message to immigrant communities and their allies [to] be afraid. The calls and reports coming in belied an effort to disorient and terrorize people. People were being detained on their way to work, at grocery stores and on their way back from dropping off their children at school.

While ICE claimed its operations were part of “routine” operations to media and local officials, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin confirmed in open court in March what many in Austin suspected, that the mass raids were retaliation for Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy limiting the use of voluntary immigration detainer requests in the Travis County Jail. Prior to reversing her policy in October, Sheriff Hernandez declined most ICE detainers to reduce the use of local resources for immigration enforcement. The raids purposefully targeted Austin as a so-called “sanctuary city” that sought to protect the immigrant community.

Community members with ICE Out of Austin issued the following statement in response to the court’s ruling:

This retaliation was a vengeful tactic by ICE for all the progress the immigrant community has gained in this county in the last 4 years. This is as much as attack on the local democratic process, the immigrant community and their leadership as it is on our sheriff's policy. We fought too hard and too long to let ICE intimidate us back into accepting our deportations.  We will continue to struggle and fight to end deportations.

More than any other region in the country, the arrests in Austin targeted those without criminal backgrounds or convictions. For more than half of the 51 arrests, ICE picked up people with no previous record. Despite this, ICE told reporters that “by removing from the streets criminal aliens and other threats to the public, ICE helps improve public safety.”

As recent journalism exposes, following a FOIA request filed by Vanderbilt University Law School students, immigration officials conspired to mislead the public to justify the raids. The Intercept published a cache of internal emails exposing ICE’s tactics to the public. John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security ordered that field offices justify the raids by depicting those arrested as violent criminals. The Chief of Staff for Enforcement and Removal Operations wrote to field offices, “Please put together a white paper covering the three most egregious cases.” In the case of Austin’s arrests, officials struggled to forge evidence that raids fostered public safety, when in reality, the community was left terrorized.

“This reveals what immigrants and advocates have known for years — that ICE regularly lies to immigrants, local officials, and the media,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership.  “Now more than ever, officials at every level of government should rethink their relationship with this agency, and cut ties with an entity that used its power to terrorize our community and then lies to elected officials about the reason for its operation.”

The threat of raids has continued since February as ICE increases arrests and the detention industry expands.  When ICE later planned nationwide raids with “Operation Mega” in September, they claimed to cancel the plan while raids were still going on nationwide. They lied again. This time, ICE detained 498 people nationwide in “Operation Safe City.”

When the media unveiled ICE’s plans for Operation Mega in September, Grassroots Leadership joined immigrant rights advocates across the nation to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding ICE transparency and accountability. We went to the ICE office in San Antonio in an action to flip the script on immigration with the demand “ICE Show Us Your Papers.”

Leaders of the immigrant community in Austin and Grassroots Leadership continue to fight back against ICE’s agenda to terrorize and deceive the public. As ICE continues to conduct nationwide raids and solicits 1,000 new detention beds in Texas, the work to protect immigrants’ rights is vitally important. “We will continue to organize to defend local immigrant communities from this latest repulsive threat of a white supremacist ideology that dehumanizes immigrants for political gain and corporate profit,” said Claudia Muñoz, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership.