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Council urges restraint in reporting immigrants to ICE

Friday, October 9, 2015 by Jack Craver

City Council is putting pressure on the Travis County Sheriff’s Office to stop reporting undocumented immigrants who are processed at the county jail to immigration authorities.

While the body voted Thursday to approve a one-year, $6.58 million interlocal agreement with the county that will allow those detained by city police to continue being processed and housed at the county jail, Council attached a symbolic amendment to the agreement ostensibly aimed at reversing Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s practice of cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify undocumented immigrants, some of whom are then deported.

“(T)he city and county value immigrant communities and wish to operate the central booking facility in a manner that reflects our values,” read the amendment, authored by Council Member Greg Casar.

Casar said that the provision was a chance for Council to express its values on immigrant rights. Attaching it to the interlocal agreement, he argued, would give county commissioners a chance to express their thoughts on the issue as well.

“While we can’t dictate under the current model what happens at the booking station, we can certainly have the county weigh in on what their values are,” he said.

The difference between the sheriff and Austin leaders on immigration is nothing new. Council voted unanimously last year to urge a policy change from the sheriff’s department, and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has long been a critic of the policy, which is rooted in a federal program, Secure Communities. From 2008 to 2014, Secure Communities required local law enforcement agencies to share information of those arrested or detained with federal agencies, including ICE.

Critics of the policy, including Acevedo, said it prevented cops from working effectively with immigrant communities to improve safety because of the constant fear of deportation. As a result, many police departments and local governments throughout the country decided to effectively stop enforcing Secure Communities.

The Obama administration suspended the controversial policy nearly a year ago, replacing it with a new one, Priority Enforcement Program, aimed at focusing only on the most dangerous offenders. While Hamilton has said he supports the change, his office has continued fielding requests from ICE to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally.

“Even though there has been a drop in deportations, there is still a fear of the police,” Alejandro Cáceres, an organizer for immigrant advocacy group ICE Out of Austin, told Council.

Casar noted that with the presidential election only 13 months away, there was no way to know what federal immigration policy would look like in the coming years.

Council Member Don Zimmerman argued that the overall $6.5 million agreement would benefit from more examination from the Public Safety Committee, which he chairs. He promised to have the agreement back before Council at its next meeting.

A number of his colleagues said the issue was too important to delay.

“For the immigrant community, especially the minorities, this is a very sensitive issue,” said Council Member Pio Renteria. “I feel like it has been well-discussed over the last two years.”

Council voted down Zimmerman’s motion to refer the item to committee, with only Council Member Ellen Troxclair joining Zimmerman in supporting the motion.

Zimmerman was the lone critic of Casar’s amendment, calling its language “superfluous” and invoking recent high-profile criminal cases involving undocumented immigrants.

“We’ve had some pretty national, sensational news on crimes committed by illegal immigrants who were supposed to be deported and were not deported, so I have a lot of constituents who would say, ‘If we add anything, we should say we remain committed to the rule of law when it comes to deportations and ones that are lawful and necessary,” he said.

Council quickly approved both Casar’s amendment and the interlocal agreement, with Zimmerman opposing both measures and Troxclair abstaining on both.

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