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Sheriff Hamilton addresses Secure Communities

Friday, February 27, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A special briefing on how President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration is changing local law enforcement policies left several questions unanswered Thursday at a Travis County Commissioners Court work session.

Sheriff Greg Hamilton updated the commission on the new trends his office has seen since the president announced the end of the Secure Communities program last November.

Hamilton opened his presentation by explaining how the old program worked. He told the commission that Travis County sent fingerprints of people booked into the jail to the FBI, which then shared that information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If ICE determined a suspect was in the country illegally, the agency would then order the county to detain that person until agents could investigate and possibly deport the suspect. Opponents have argued that the program breaks up families over minor infractions.

After going over the nuts and bolts, Hamilton introduced Maj. Wes Priddy, director of the Travis County Correctional Complex. Priddy gave the commissioners a graph that showed a significant drop in Secure Communities-related detentions since January 2014.

“From January of last year, it’s [down] about 53 percent,” Hamilton told the commissioners.

“Is that drop reflected by the change in federal policy?” Commissioner Brigid Shea asked.

“Yes, it is,” Hamilton replied.

He was less confident, however, when it came to the ultimate look of the new federal policy. Hamilton explained that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had indicated that a replacement for Secure Communities was supposed to have launched Jan. 5. In a Nov. 20 memo, Johnson wrote that ICE would no longer order local jail officials to detain individuals. Rather, the agency would now only ask to be notified of a possible immigration law violator’s pending release.

Both Hamilton and Priddy said ICE is still submitting the same forms it had used before the change in policy, however. The forms, Priddy said, still request detention rather than notification.

“I had a conversation with an ICE employee, I think it was in February, and they had not been fully trained on what to do,” Hamilton said. When asked whether the county could do anything to encourage ICE to get up to speed, he said his hands were all but tied.

That same submission to federal authority throughout the growing controversy around the Secure Communities program has made Hamilton deeply unpopular with activists who pressured him to cut ties with it. Hamilton has long argued (and ICE’s website backs him up) that his office was required by law to participate in the program. However, several cities and states have opted out, and in 2014, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the program was not mandatory.

At Thursday’s briefing, Judge Sarah Eckhardt asked the sheriff whether he supported the change in federal policy.

“Yes,” Hamilton replied, adding that he personally knows several people who were “caught up” in the Secure Communities program. He told commissioners about one person in particular.

“In fact this individual had family violence at his home,” Hamilton said, without explaining how he knew the man. “And this particular individual went out and chased the individual that committed the family violence, and he got caught up, and that was the only time the individual had any contact with law enforcement. And during the course of coming to the jail to be interviewed, the ICE agents found out this individual was not here legally.”

Hamilton explained that the program is capable of ensnaring both first-time offenders and hardened criminals alike. “It’s real hard for me to be the judge and jury on who [ICE] select,” he said.

Commissioner Ron Davis told Hamilton that he appreciated Hamilton’s position and the uncertainty his office faces in the absence of clear directives from ICE. He also pointed out that Travis County isn’t the only jurisdiction affected by the changing policy.

“It’s not only here. It’s all across the nation,” Davis said. “So we really don’t know how it’s gonna be resolved, or when it’s gonna be resolved. There’s still a lot of politics in this thing. That needs to be highlighted pretty much so. This is a political hot potato right now.”

Turning his scope back locally, Davis reminded his colleagues that the sheriff’s participation in Secure Communities drove a potentially costly wedge between the county and the City of Austin. He pointed to the city’s efforts to build and operate its own booking facility in order to circumvent Secure Communities. Even though the city backed off the idea in the wake of the president’s executive action, Davis said it’s something worth keeping an eye on as the new policy takes shape, since the county depends on fees the city pays to use its booking services.

Eckhardt told Davis she would work to schedule a briefing from the County Criminal Justice Planning Department to hear an update on interlocal agreement between the city and county. Further referring to the questions left unanswered by Thursday’s briefing, Eckhardt also agreed to Commissioner Margaret Gómez’s request for a briefing from the county attorney’s office on the legal implications the president’s executive actions brought on the county.


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