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Attorneys protest Travis County Jail’s cooperation with ICE

Friday, May 9, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Pressure is growing for the Travis County Jail to halt its participation in a federal program to put immigration holds on certain inmates for possible deportation, as a group of more than 100 attorneys and law professors are calling the program unconstitutional.

 

The group sent a letter Thursday to members of the Travis County Commissioners Court requesting that the county end its participation in the federal Secure Communities program. The group is made up mostly of University of Texas Law School professors and attorneys from Travis County.

 

The letter points out that honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, requests for 48-hour immigration detainers through Secure Communities exposes the county to legal liability for constitutional violations, causes unnecessary separation of families and discourages immigrants’ cooperation with law enforcement. (See text of letter)

 

The lawyers and professors are only the latest group to oppose Travis County’s participation in the program. Numerous immigration and civil rights groups have protested local participation in the federal deportation program since it began in 2008.

 

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton maintains that his participation in the Secure Communities is mandatory, but the attorneys cite both Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals rulings that the program is voluntary.

 

“The continued detention of an individual in the Travis County Jail based on an ICE detainer violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure,” said Barbara Hines, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and author of the letter.

 

“We prepared this letter because of the increasing number of court cases that have held counties and cities liable for constitutional violations for prolonging the detention of individuals based solely on a detainer request from ICE,” she said. “The courts have concluded that an ICE detainer is not a warrant and does not provide legal authority for continued incarceration.”

 

Contacted Thursday about the letter, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, said they had not seen the letter and are “going to continue honoring ICE detainer requests.” A spokesman for County Judge Sam Biscoe said he plans to talk with Hamilton early next week and would not comment until after that conversation takes place.

 

Hines said statistics show that the Travis County Jail has one of the highest rates of ICE detainers in the country.

 

In the last two years, Travis County complied with 5,507 detainers, of which only 3 percent involved Level 1 offenders, ICE’s classification for those convicted of the most serious crimes,” Hines said. “Seventy-three percent of the Travis County detainers were issued against persons who were ultimately not convicted of any crime.”

 

In defending his participation in Secure Communities, Hamilton recently said that slightly more than 70 percent of ICE detainers in the Travis County Jail were issued against persons charged with felonies. As recently as April, Hamilton issued a news release stating that he intended to continue honoring ICE detainers, stating that not participating in the program risked putting possible criminals back on the streets.

 

However, Hines said in her letter that Hamilton’s statistics don’t line up with data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (called TRAC) at Syracuse University, which tracks detentions and deportations on a national and local basis. She said according to TRAC, in the last four years, approximately 4,600 people were deported from Travis County as a result of Secure Communities.

 

In the program, when an individual is booked into the Travis County jail, they are asked their place of birth. If they are not U.S. born, information about them is forwarded to ICE, which investigates that person’s immigration status. If ICE suspects that the person may be deportable, it asks Travis County to issue a 48-hour immigration hold after their release, so the federal agency can determine if they should be deported.

 

Hines said that while almost all Texas counties participate in Secure Communities, dozens of counties in other states – such as Oregon, Vermont and Colorado – have limited or suspended their participation after the constitutionality of the program became an issue. She said litigation has been filed in several states over holding inmates past their release date without a warrant.

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