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Immigration sparks Council fight

Friday, February 17, 2017 by Jo Clifton

After a heated exchange between City Council members Ellen Troxclair and Greg Casar, Council voted 10-1 Thursday to approve $200,000 in emergency funding for immigrant legal services.

Troxclair, Council’s only Republican, offered the only no vote and the only negative commentary about increasing funding to Catholic Charities of Central Texas to aid people seeking legal help in dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Monday that ICE said it had made 51 arrests in Austin last week and of those arrested, only 23 had criminal convictions.

Justin Estep, a spokesman for the local Catholic Charities office, told those gathered at a press conference Thursday that the funding would allow them to accept about 50 extra cases per month. He said his charity receives considerably more requests for legal assistance than they are able to provide.

USA Today reported Thursday that immigration raids carried out by President Donald Trump’s administration have netted a smaller percentage of criminals than those conducted by the administration of former President Barack Obama.

During the press conference, Casar said, “The federal government attacked Austin’s immigrant families last week. Now, it’s up to the city to step up and take care of the families that our federal leaders are targeting for political gain.”

On the dais, Casar told the story of one of the immigrants who lives in his district, an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. government in Iraq for 12 years. The man, whose name is Amar, has children who attend elementary school, Casar said. They went to Iraq for a family emergency, but because of Trump’s executive order, the family was still stuck in Iraq last week, separated from Amar. “I want to thank Catholic Charities for their work to help that family and my district,” he said.

He said he knew that each Council member has similar stories of people in their district. However, Casar also revealed that he had received plenty of negative feedback from the public, calling his office using words like “wetback.”

Troxclair said she thought Catholic Charities was offering a needed service for some immigrants, such as victims of abuse, but the city should not be spending money in this particular way. She said the city should encourage people to donate to charities and even suggested an amendment to the item that would have given the group $50,000 and sought matching funds from members of the community for additional funding.

None of her colleagues were willing to second that proposed amendment.

It was Troxclair’s next comments that drew Casar’s ire. She said, “But for the many anecdotes of people who are here in genuine need of the services, there are also people who are here who have committed heinous crimes, people who have been accused of sexually assaulting children and domestic violence. So I think the thing we have to understand is this conversation is driven by fear on both sides.”

She added, “I understand that there is fear in our immigrant community about their future and their families. But there is also a legitimate fear on the other side of people who have, yes, been here for generations, and they’re not hateful. They feel like their quality of life, their future in this country is being threatened. They feel like their safety is being threatened when they see reports of undocumented immigrants committing crimes against people in our community and not being accountable.

“They fear for their economic stability when they are struggling to stay in Austin to begin with and then they see their tax dollars (being spent) on public services that they don’t even qualify for,” she said. And finally, Troxclair asked for civility during continued dialogue on the issue.

“The hate coming from either side is not productive and it does scare me for the future of our country,” she said.

Casar responded directly to Troxclair. “I don’t think this is driven equally on both sides. There is fear, legitimate fear, from one side. And the other side, including anecdotes you expressed, are false. There is no one in this community who is accused of committing a crime who is not taken through the criminal justice system the same as anyone else. And nothing that we have said today on our side of this issue is untrue. Whereas, what you have implied and what other leaders have implied is deliberately misleading – to score political points on the vulnerable.

“The people you described that have committed crimes can be held and tried and put in prison, just like anyone else,” Casar continued. “And if what you want is to express that those people should be treated more harshly than others because of where they come from, you can make that statement. But the statement that those people are let out on the street and are dangerous, unlike people of other colors and other backgrounds who go through the same process – then you are deliberately misleading people. … If you have concerns, make sure that you’re making accurate statements.

“Second, when people say that they’re worried about the quality of their life, that’s fine – they can have the quality of their life which we are dedicated to supporting. But we’re not here to protect the quality of your life by protecting you from certain people from certain places,” Casar said.

Finally, he said that Troxclair could disagree with him, “but do not spread lies and misinformation … that crimes are not being punished and that people are in danger from those folks. … And this president started his run for the presidency by doing the same thing, by saying that people were violent criminals because of where they came from, and that is unacceptable.”

By the time that Council Member Jimmy Flannigan began to speak in favor of supporting the increased funding, Troxclair was visibly shaken and appeared to be crying.

Troxclair later called the Austin Monitor to clarify: “I did not say that all illegal immigrants are criminals. I just said for every anecdote about an illegal immigrant who legitimately needs help, there’s also anecdotes on the other side of illegal immigrants who have committed really heinous crimes. We need, again, to continue to strive to have respectful dialogues about the legitimate fears that people have on both sides of this issue in order to make responsible policy decisions.”

Council members Pio Renteria and Delia Garza both strongly argued in favor of the funding. Both said that they had family members living on the other side of the Rio Grande when it was still a part of Mexico.

Renteria said that during the 1836 war, when the U.S. claimed the part of Mexico that is now Texas, his family had members living on the other side of the Rio Grande. The fact that they are on the other side of the river “does not mean that they’re not family.”

Renteria said he is part Native American, part Mexican and part Spanish and that he “really gets offended” when he hears anti-immigrant comments. “We opened our arms to these Europeans when they came here. … But that’s history. Are we going to continue fighting history?”

He concluded, “We’re really going to have to open up our hearts and our souls. Otherwise we’re going to face destruction.”

Although there were at least a half dozen Austinites who came to Council on Thursday to support the item for increased funding, there was one in the audience who spoke against it.

Sharon Blythe, a cemetery advocate whom Council rejected for service on the Parks and Recreation Board because of her harsh treatment of parks department employees, said she had no problem with immigration lawyers. “But to give away this money to help people stay in this country that are not documented is a disgrace to the city. And, for our City Council to stand out there on the streets advocating that people break the laws of the United States of America is a disgrace to the city.”

The vote was specifically scheduled for Thursday, on a day when many restaurants, and some other businesses, closed in order to allow workers to demonstrate how much this country needs its immigrants, and immigrants were demonstrating outside Council chambers during the conversation.

Photos by Jo Clifton.

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