Friday, November 7, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Council tries for changes in Secure Communities

City Council members Thursday instructed city staff to make a series of changes to a proposed interlocal agreement the City of Austin holds with Travis County for prisoner booking services. If county officials agree to the changes, the cumulative effect could circumvent the Travis County Sheriff’s participation in the Federal Secure Communities program.

The move came on a series of amendments from Council Member Mike Martinez. “The county may not agree with some of these, but I think it’s important that we as a Council act on these amendments,” he said.

Later, Martinez added, “Each of these amendments is intended to either minimize the impact of secure communities on Austin families, or increase the transparency around this program.”

Council members also approved language that would require quarterly reports.

Council members left final conclusion of the agreement in the hands of staff. Prompted by Council Member Laura Morrison, staff noted that both Travis County Commissioners and the Travis County Sheriff have to sign off on any final deal.

Incoming Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has indicated her opposition to the Sheriff’s participation in Secure Communities. Thursday, Martinez hinted at what could be a novel solution to the issue — one he attributed to Eckhardt. He called it a “potential alternative for a lease-back to the city to run our magistration center within the facility that would be wholly operated by us, and therefore not necessarily be in the … agreement for certain arrestees.”

Martinez pointed to language in the agreement that would allow city officials to proceed along those lines, should they so choose. Eckhardt takes office in January.

Austin Police Department officials have called for the city to build what they’ve termed a magistration center. Though they argue that the facility would be more economically and logistically effective, it would also allow APD officials — not the Travis County Sheriff — to dictate whether the city participates in Secure Communities.

Martinez noted that 75 percent of arrested parties “are from Austin Police Department.”

During the discussion, Martinez referenced legal precedents for Secure Communities opt-out. “This doesn’t end this conversation tonight, obviously,” he began. “But both the Department of Homeland Security and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals have made it clear that compliance with detainer programs is voluntary.”

In addition to what he called “devastating” impact on local families, Martinez also addressed what he framed as the financial impact to Travis County taxpayers of participating in Secure Communities. “When (ICE) does these detainers, they are not required to reimburse counties for the cost of continued custody, and that’s at $105 a day to our taxpayers here in Austin,” he said. “In most cases, ICE doesn’t provide reimbursement.”

Staff will now conduct negotiations with county officials over the long-standing agreement.


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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Federal Secure Communities program: A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program set-up to screen arrestees for immigration violations. The program has become contentious in the Austin region.

Travis County: Travis County is the urban county that includes, notably, Austin.

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