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Much heat, little light, no action in Travis County Jail ICE debate

Wednesday, February 13, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County Commissioners took the heat for three hours Tuesday afternoon over Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s decision to give the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency a desk in the county jail. However, following an executive session, Commissioners came to the same legal conclusion as Hamilton: the sheriff has the authority to hire, staff and provide space inside the jail walls, even if it’s the county that carries the contract.


Immigration is a complicated issue that engenders passionate viewpoints. At yesterday’s hearing to discuss the county’s standing in the ICE debate, alarmed speakers raised any number of concerns, including: the potential for racial profiling; the intention of filing immigration detainers before a person is proven guilty; the costs that the county will incur for holding additional prisoners; and the fear that the presence of ICE would deter local immigrants from reporting crimes, such as spousal abuse.


Hamilton’s message to the court and at a town hall meeting at Conley-Guerrero Center last night was consistent: He was well within his purview to offer a desk to ICE. Immigration agents – if not in current numbers — have been in the jail for almost 28 years and have the same access as many other parties. However, Hamilton could not shake the assumption from many that the county and ICE were coordinating efforts. The two ideas are inextricably linked in some people’s minds.


For instance, the invitation to last night’s town hall meeting, hosted by the Workers Defense Project, couched the proposal as Travis County Sheriff’s Department “working in partnership” with federal immigration agents to set up an office in the county jail to check detainees’ immigrant status.


“We’re giving them a space in the jail to conduct their interviews,” Hamilton explained at the town hall meeting, which had an attendance of about 50. “I spent an hour-and-a-half in Commissioners’ Court today, telling them what we do and being told we were being ICE agents. That’s not the case. We are the keepers of the jail. Different agencies – APD, DEA, defense attorneys, ICE – come into the jail. They have a place to sit down to do their interviews. Somehow it’s gotten out there that ICE in our jail is something new, but it’s not new. It’s been happening for almost 28 years now.”


Hamilton and his staff denied that any ethnic group was being profiled or that people were being stopped with the intention of detention. According to current written policy and procedure, which was distributed to the court and audience, “persons will not be stopped, questioned, detained or arrested solely on the ground that they may be undocumented and deportable foreign nationals.”


Department procedure is to ask someone who has been arrested the location of his or her birth. If the location is outside the country, that data is entered into a database that is forwarded to ICE. Local agents, with or without an office, receive that information seven days a week and the ICE agent verifies residency. Once that research is completed, a 48-hour immigration detainer can be placed on the individual.


Hamilton’s comments about his department’s limited involvement in the process were not enough to allay the fears of immigrant advocates, who expect the number of detainees to rise with the advent of the ICE station. According to the invitation to the town hall meeting, the number of detentions could triple.


Hamilton said the problem appeared to be with how ICE conducted its business. No one from ICE was at the meeting to speak.


Public Information Officer Roger Wade was on hand at Commissioner Court to provide data on the detainers issued since the desk was added. Travis County’s statistics – comparing December versus the Feb. 1-11, showed that 117 ICE detainers were issued in December, which was 3 percent of the jail population. In the first days of February, 111 detainers were issued, which was about 6 percent of the population.


While the testimony was sometimes emotional – Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was pressed a number of times to defend his position on immigration —  the county’s position was cut-and-dried, as outlined in the agenda topic. Did the county have any authority or standing in the placement of ICE agents at the jail?


County commissioners are responsible for the county jail. They also run Central Booking for the City of Austin. If someone chose to sue the jail over the practice, it would be the city and county that would be sued first and not Greg Hamilton.


Commissioners took a late-afternoon closed session to review the legal issues. When the Court returned to the dais, no motion commissioners took no action except County Judge Sam Biscoe’s wish that Hamilton and the community continue to engage in dialogue.


The lack of action stems from an opinion out of then-Attorney General John Cornyn’s office, issued in 2000, that gave wide discretion to the Tarrant County Sheriff to staff and operate the county jail.


Biscoe confirmed it was the AG’s interpretation that the commissioners had no standing to demand that Hamilton do or not do something, even if they had chosen to do so. In the meantime, the county does continue to carry liability. Biscoe says that is the case in any number of cases against the county, in which the county is sued instead of a particular employee or even an elected official.

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