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Immigrant rights activists confront mayor over deportations

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 by Jack Craver

Mayor Steve Adler engaged in a courteous but tense public conversation over the city’s immigration policies with a group of immigrant rights activists outside of his City Hall office Monday afternoon.

ICE Out of Austin – a group pushing for local law enforcement to no longer cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain or deport undocumented immigrants – arrived outside of Adler’s office shortly before 5:30 p.m., belting out chants in English and Spanish and demanding a meeting with the mayor. Group leader Alejandro Caceres rejected an offer from a mayoral aide to meet with Adler in his office, saying that group members wanted the meeting to be public.

Surrounded by activists and media – and speaking even more deliberately than usual, so that an interpreter could translate his remarks into Spanish – Adler emphasized his concerns that federal immigration laws were in conflict with the United States’ heritage as an immigrant nation. He also noted challenges that immigration laws present to local police because undocumented immigrants fear that they risk deportation by reporting crimes.

“It’s important that everyone in this community feel safe and everyone here feel protected,” Adler said. “Our local law enforcement people need to have confidence in the people that are living in our communities, and (people) have to feel comfortable going to law enforcement when they’re not being treated well or when they’re threatened or feeling in danger.”

He added, “It’s for that reason that I am a strong supporter of our local law enforcement prioritizing their time and spending their time on our local issues, on our local safety concerns, and not being put in the position where they are called on to enforce national immigration policies.”

But Caceres told Adler that his words of support were not enough, and he urged him to put forth a resolution making Austin a sanctuary city. Anything less, he argued, amounted to complicity in deportations.

Adler responded that he was unsure whether a resolution was “the best way” to offer protections to the community.

“But we’re telling you that it is the best way, actually,” responded Caceres. “We’re telling you that we’re tired of families getting deported, we’re tired of politicians saying we have to be patient.”

“We see you as an ally and a friend, Mayor Adler, but if you’re telling us that you’re not going to put forward a resolution, then you stand with ICE and deportations,” Caceres added. “There is no gray line.”

Another demonstrator, Sulma Franco, recounted taking evidence of violence against her to the police department, which she said was largely uncooperative and unresponsive because of language barriers.

Adler responded that he would like to hear of such incidents and help members of the community address them.

“If you have people in our police department that are not acting properly, that are doing the wrong thing, that are putting people in jeopardy, then involve me,” he said. “I am pleading with you to involve me in those situations so there’s something I can do to help.”

“Here we are,” responded Carmen Zuvieta, who earlier had told the Austin Monitor that her husband was deported to Mexico three years ago. “How many more parents need to be separated from their children?” she asked.

Caceres said the immigrant community needed structural changes to law enforcement rather than help from the mayor on a case-by-case basis. “We’re telling you what you can do, and you’re saying no,” he said.

The demonstration actually began in City Council chambers during a meeting of the Public Safety Committee. Council Member Don Zimmerman, the committee chair, had scheduled a discussion of sanctuary cities and was asking representatives of the Austin Police Department and the sheriff’s department about existing policies and whether they knew if public funds directed to nonprofit organizations were being used to evade immigration laws.

The term “sanctuary city” typically refers to municipalities that have established a policy not to enforce federal immigration law, and where law enforcement generally does not inquire about or investigate a person’s immigration status.

Brian Manley, chief of staff for the Austin Police Department, emphasized that Austin was not a sanctuary city and that he could answer only for how the police department itself operated, not private organizations.

Caceres, the only citizen speaker, told the committee that “this hearing is a reinforcement of bad politics” and that the group of demonstrators behind him were not going to bother engaging with Council members with little authority on the issue.

“Who we need to be talking to is Steve Adler because he continues to have inaction when it comes to this,” he said.

With that pronouncement, Caceres turned his back on the dais and led the demonstrators out of Council chambers and up the stairs to see the mayor.

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