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Immigrant Affairs commissioners debate legality of Travis County policy

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Disagreement broke out at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Commission on Immigrant Affairs as to whether Travis County or the city of Austin would face criminal or civil prosecution for violating federal immigration law as inferred by President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”

City Council Member Leslie Pool, who attended the meeting, said that the executive order was “one of the least thought-out massive national actions ever.”

Section 9 of that order states, “It is the policy of the executive branch to ensure, to the fullest extent of the law, that a State, or a political subdivision of a State, shall comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (Communication between government agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service).”

Commissioner David Vandenberg said that U.S. Rep. John Culberson, from Texas’ 7th congressional district, sent a letter on Jan. 26 to Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates accusing the Travis County Sheriff’s Office of violating that section of federal code. The letter reads, “I ask you to review this policy and to determine what actions to take if the policy is a violation. I also ask you to provide me a list of grants for which the county applied.”

“I think this is getting very serious right now,” Vandenberg said at the meeting.

Commissioner Krystal Gomez, however, said that the copy of Travis County policy attached to the letter had been updated a few days later, perhaps in response to the allegations. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy listed on the Travis County Sheriff’s Office website now includes an additional item 10, which reads, “This policy in no way prohibits or restricts sending information to or requesting or receiving information from ICE regarding an individual’s immigration or citizenship status, and nothing in this policy shall be construed to prohibit or restrict TCSO personnel from exchanging information regarding the immigration or citizenship status of any individual with ICE.”

“I wouldn’t jump the gun right now and freak out about whether Travis County is in violation over this federal law,” Gomez said, “because the policy that was sent to (the Department of Justice Inspector General) is not the most updated policy.”

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, elected last November, ran on a campaign of dramatically changing the county’s handling of undocumented immigrants, stating on her website, “I believe that the current relationship between the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must end.”

Hernandez’s policy has not only drawn the attention of federal officials but has also been targeted by state government. The Texas Senate approved a bill on Feb. 8 that threatens to withdraw state grant funding or cast civil fines if local governments do not cooperate with ICE.

According to the Mexican Consulate in Austin, over 50 people have been arrested in recent ICE operations in the city, with one arrest being shared widely on social media last Friday that happened near a Whataburger in the Rundberg area. That arrest sparked demonstrations of hundreds of people at the intersection of Lamar and Rundberg Friday and Saturday nights.

Vandenberg said that he was still concerned that this was only the first attack on Travis County as a so-called “sanctuary jurisdiction.” Commissioner Karen Crawford agreed. “We’re still swimming in unknown waters,” she said.

This story has been corrected. We originally reported that demonstrations against the ICE arrests took place Saturday and Sunday. It was, in fact, Friday and Saturday.

Photo by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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