Obama immigration plan may end city-county tiff
Friday, November 21, 2014 by Mark Richardson
It may have taken an executive order, but President Barack Obama seems to have headed off a dispute between the City of Austin and Travis County. The long-standing controversy involving Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s participation in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program may soon be over.
Under Secure Communities, Travis County Jail officials cooperated with federal officials by placing a 48-hour hold on suspects thought to be in the country illegally. Many of those suspects ended up being deported, even if they were only being held for a minor crime. The program spurred numerous protests from immigration activists and others. Despite the criticism, Hamilton refused to end his department’s participation in the program.
However, it appears that any tug-of-war between the city and county has been rendered moot. Late Thursday, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) announced that, as part of his immigration initiative, Obama had canceled Secured Communities. The program, deeply unpopular among a number of activist and civil rights groups, was the driving force behind a City of Austin proposal earlier this year designed to have the city establish a separate booking facility from Travis County.
Ending Secure Communities will likely resolve the apparent impasse between the city and the county in negotiations over renewal of a long-standing interlocal agreement in which central booking services at the county jail are shared.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said Thursday that while a negotiating session between the city and the county on Monday had produced a tentative agreement, it was not acceptable to city management.
“There was apparently agreement over language that a working group had come up with on the day preceding our court meeting,” said Biscoe. “(County Executive) Roger Jefferies and representatives of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office met with (Austin Police Chief Art) Acevedo and his people, and they reached some kind of compromise language, I think. But that language was rejected by ‘higher ups’ (at the city). We weren’t told exactly who that was.”
A request for confirmation of the meeting and its results was deflected by the city manager’s office. A spokeswoman for the city said they were unaware that any such meeting had taken place.
City Council is on the record opposing the Secure Communities program, and at its behest, city officials had recently investigated the idea of operating a facility separate from central booking at the Travis County Jail. The facility would be used to process and hold suspects arrested by Austin police as a way of working around the Secure Communities issue and possibly saving money. The city looked at several scenarios, including building its own booking and holding facility in North Austin or leasing space in the county’s central booking center to run its own magistrate operations.
County commissioners met with the county attorney Tuesday to discuss the central booking issue, emerging from an executive session and announcing that they would revisit the issue in early December. Aside from the logistical issues in the discussions, Biscoe said a big part of the county’s concerns were financial.
“We said we would have the item back on the agenda in two weeks, because at the end of December, we are due payment (from the city) for the first quarter of services,” he said. “And right now, we are operating without a contract.”
Biscoe said Travis County approved the interlocal agreement in September, but the city has not signed it yet.
“So we need to get our people to get with the city to make sure they make that payment at the end of December or the beginning of January,” he said.
Biscoe said he was told there was a possibility of another meeting of the city-county work group Monday, but he could not confirm it. Presumably, with Secure Communities out of the picture, the city and county will be able to agree and complete the interlocal agreement.
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