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
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.
A federal judge has ordered U.S. Immigration officials to stop requesting local law enforcement officials to detain certain people without warrant so they can determine their immigration status. This ruling adds to the already intense debate over so-called 'sanctuary cities', where local officials do not have a working connection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), therefore creating a safe space for undocumented immigrants.
Bob Libel, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said that the ruling would begin by only affecting six Midwestern states, but he believes it will eventually apply everywhere, including Texas.
"We're not entirely sure what that's going to mean for some of the detainers that are issued here in Texas,” Libal said. "We also believe that the underlying assertion of the court is correct and that will have the impact of affecting other courts around the country."
The topic has become a major issue in the race for Travis County sheriff, where the Democratic candidate has vowed to end voluntary cooperation with ICE. Advocates said her stance would make Austin the state's first true sanctuary city. Libal says opposition to warrantless ICE holds has been growing in other parts of the state as well.
"In Dallas County, the sheriff said she wouldn't be honoring some detainers, and in Houston, there's been a very active campaign to try to convince elected officials there to end detainers,” Libal said. "We do believe that there seems to be growing momentum against these things."
(AUSTIN, Texas) — Today, Travis County legal scholars, advocates, and immigrant leaders responded to a federal district court order from the Northern District of Illinois that invalidated the federal government’s practice of issuing detainers against people in law enforcement custody. Read more about Court says immigration detainers in local jails are illegal; Travis County legal experts, immigrant leaders respond
A proposal to impound vehicles for drivers with an invalid license without an arrest is in the works to go to the Austin city council.
The public safety commission, though, voted not to endorse the proposal in a 5-5 vote. Some commissioners voiced concerns it would disproportionately affect a group of people too much.
Immigration organizer Alejandro Caceres with Grassroots Leadership in Austin went further and said this would be an attack on the immigrant community.
“It feels like it is a way for the city of Austin if it does decide to move forward with this policy to push out undocumented immigrants out of this city,” Caceres said.
Caceres says the state does not allow undocumented immigrants to get a license. That’s why he wants the legislature instead to change that.
“We need to make sure that the people who are driving on our streets are qualified to drive so we need to be able to get drivers licenses,” Caceres said.
One commissioner did talk about proposing to the city council to have them lobby the legislature to get a bill like that passed. The commission said they’ll talk about that in their next meeting.
The proposal does not need an endorsement from the commission. Manley said they plan on taking it to the council in the next couple months.
WHAT: Protest at Austin Police Station asking for Chief Acevedo to meet with formerly detained immigrants and change the police manual
WHEN: Thursday, September 8th, 6:30 pm
WHERE: Austin Police station, 715 E. 8th St., Austin, Texas Read more about Austin immigrants demand Chief Art Acevedo add protections to police manual, oppose private detention centers