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GOP wants to restore Secure Communities program

Friday, January 16, 2015 by Mark Richardson

A recent agreement between the City of Austin and Travis County over booking services at the county jail could be in jeopardy if congressional Republicans succeed in reversing President Obama’s executive orders on immigration policy.

House Republicans voted out a bill Wednesday to fund the Homeland Security department that would defund the president’s immigration program. Specifically, it would reinstate the Secure Communities program with increased funding.

Under Secure Communities, officials asked local jails to put an immigration hold for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on inmates who had completed their sentence but whom officials believed to be undocumented immigrants. Opponents of the program said that many of the people who have been deported had committed only minor offenses, adding that the policy often split up families and drove a wedge between law enforcement and immigrants.

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s cooperation with the Secure Communities program has been the target of protests since 2008.  Hamilton repeatedly stated his intention to cooperate with the ICE program, despite opposition from the community and a federal court ruling that participation in the program was not mandatory.

The Center for Constitutional Rights reported that Travis County led all U.S. counties with the highest percentage of deported non-criminals. According to an August 2010 report in the Statesman, 82 percent of the jail inmates deported from Travis County had no violent history.

Hamilton’s spokesman, Roger Wade, told the Monitor that he did not think reinstating the program would change anything. “We are a law enforcement agency, and we will continue to work with other law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Including ICE.”

Former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez introduced a resolution last fall that required the city to develop facilities separate from the Travis County Jail to process and magistrate those arrested by Austin police. The move would have cost the county more than $6 million a year. When the president issued his executive orders Nov. 20, including ending the Secure Communities program, city and county officials negotiated a new agreement on handling APD prisoners. Part of the agreement is a pledge by the Sheriff’s Office not to hold prisoners any longer than state law allows.

The bill to repeal Obama’s executive orders was sponsored by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio), whose 21st District includes parts of central and south Austin. Smith issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “We must restore the rule of law and right the wrongs this president has inflicted on the American people and our immigration system. His actions cannot go unanswered.”

Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), whose 35th District includes the eastern parts of Austin and Travis County, has been a staunch opponent of Secure Communities and made the original announcement in November that the president was ending the program. At the time, he said he hoped immigration employees “would be assigned to higher-priority duties.”

When Congress passed a stopgap budget last year, it funded all federal operations through the end of the fiscal year except for Homeland Security, which was funded only through mid-February. House Republicans plan to use the funding of Homeland Security as leverage to defund President Obama’s immigration plan, precipitating another crisis in Washington, D.C.

Immigration attorneys are deeply concerned about the prospect of Secure Communities returning. Amelia Ruiz Fischer, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said reinstating it would be a massive mistake.

“It would be a disaster,” she said. “We have been pushing against this since 2008, and we have finally been making some progress. It would further criminalize immigrants and erode any trust that has developed between law enforcement and the immigrant community.”

The measure must still pass the Senate. Obama has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.



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