(AUSTIN, Texas) — Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez released her plan today to finally limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Travis County Jail.
The announcement is a direct response to community organizing and brings the Travis County Sheriff’s Office policy in line with what Travis County residents voted for in November. The issue of immigration detainer policy was a key factor in the 2016 Travis County Sheriff’s race, and every candidate for sheriff, from all parties, said they would limit cooperation with ICE in some way.
With Sheriff Hernandez’s announcement, Travis County will no longer be doing the federal government’s job. The policy is particularly timely as Donald Trump assumes the presidency, having promised to deport two to three million immigrants during his first year in office, and to increase use of federal charges that criminalize the act of migration to manufacture the so-called “criminals” he wants to deport. The policy released today can be read here.
Immigrant community members praised the announcement.
“In 2013 when we saw that immigration reform didn’t have a future, as there wasn’t any intention to make a law to give migration status to our people, a group of immigrants met and began to organize. And we thought that if at the federal level nothing could be done, then we had to do something locally,” said Carmen Zuvieta, organizer with ICE Out of Austin. “Today we have arrived at this point where we’ve not only convinced the people but also our leaders to make a change regarding the decisions that harm our immigrant community. We are grateful to all who believed in us and everyone who never left us alone, to those who walked with us in this struggle, convinced that this change was necessary. We thank the new sheriff for wanting to do a better job. The security of all of those who are witnesses to a crime or the victims who can make reports without fear depends on this decision.”
Sheriff Hernandez has also stated that she plans to increase the county’s use of cite and release policies and diversion programs, as well as increase mental health services at the Travis County Jail.
“Sheriff Hernandez’s policy proposals come at a great time for those of us advocating for mental health and criminal justice reform as we enter the 85th legislative session. Speaker Joe Straus has highlighted mental health in the House Budget which includes jail diversion programs and local collaborations to expand capacity of mental health treatment facilities to the community to expand recovery-oriented services,” said LaTasha Taylor, mental health organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “This sets the stage for Sheriff Hernandez to follow through on her stated commitment to collaborate with communities and nonprofits alike to increase solutions for those who have behavioral health issues and criminal justice involvement. We can no longer continue to allow our jails to be the ineffective de facto treatment center for those seeking recovery from mental health issues in Texas.”
The struggle to end deportations from the Travis County Jail goes back to the implementation of the Secure Communities deportation program in 2009, and former Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s enthusiastic cooperation with ICE, even at the cost of millions of dollars to Travis County taxpayers in increased time immigrants spent in the jail. At the peak of deportations from Travis County, Hamilton’s policy made Austin’s deportation rate one of the highest in the country, with an average of 19 people deported per week. A look back at this campaign written by immigrant community members who led it can be read here.
There is room for strengthening the sheriff’s policy, however. Although it will strictly limit cooperation with ICE, it does make some exceptions, including for those convicted of certain crimes or perceived to be a risk to “national security.” It also allows the TCSO to “exercise discretion in any individual case to ensure that justice is served.”
“The immigrant community needs assurances that this discretion is not used to continue deportations or let individual officers decide to enforce immigration law,” said Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer at Grassroots Leadership.
“Ending local police cooperation with ICE is ultimately about upholding constitutional rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment,” said Edna Yang, Assistant Executive Director at American Gateways. “And there are no exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.”
Despite the fact that this policy was resoundingly demanded by Travis County voters and merely brings the county’s law enforcement activities in line with the law, Governor Abbott’s office released a memo earlier this week depriving any county that does not honor detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement of all state grant funding. The measure could hold hostage funding for social services provided by the county, such as services for victims of domestic violence. However, honoring detainers under the massive deportation program planned by the Trump administration could be even more costly. At the peak of deportations in Travis County from 2012-2013, detainers cost the county between $3.8 million and $7.3 million, more than the $1.8 million per year that the county stands to lose in state funding.
The new policy will also face challenges at the Texas Legislature, where so-called anti-sanctuary cities bill SB4 has been introduced, with a matching bill in the House. Implications include providing individual discretion to police officers to act in an immigration enforcement capacity, leading to racial profiling by rogue officers and encouraging “stop and frisk” policies, interfering with local law enforcement’s authority to set their own public safety priority, and inviting lawsuits against local government for friendly immigrant policies and/or practices, “written or unwritten.”
Locally, the efforts to get local law enforcement out of the deportation business continue. While Sheriff Hernandez’ policy limits deportations from the Travis County Jail, there remains no written policy that prohibits the Austin Police Department from inquiring into immigration status, lengthening an individual’s detention after arrest for immigration enforcement purposes, or sharing information with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
“In light of the Trump administration’s intentions to exponentially increase deportations, the Austin City Council should act quickly to codify policies that prohibit using Austin Police Department resources to enforce federal immigration laws,” said Cristina Parker, Immigration Programs Director at Grassroots Leadership. “Unfortunately, Trump becomes president today and all our representatives at the city, county and state levels have a simple choice: You’re with our communities or you are with Trump.”
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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past.
Cristina Parker firstname.lastname@example.org, 512-499-8111