Tuesday, March 21, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Travis County tops list of jurisdictions declining immigration detainers

A new report suggests Travis County refused more federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants than any other law enforcement agency. The report from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is the first of what are promised to be weekly publications.

President Donald Trump established the practice of publishing the lists of jurisdictions declining ICE detainers in an executive order signed earlier this year.

When an undocumented immigrant is booked into jail, the federal immigration agency can issue a request for local law enforcement to detain that person until federal agents can pick them up. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Travis County has declined 142 of 206, or roughly 69 percent, of these detainer requests between Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, 2017.

Those numbers should be higher. According to numbers from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, Hernandez had declined 196 ICE detainers by Feb. 2, with the majority of these applied retroactively.

County officials say a shift in policy explains why Travis County, as opposed to cities with more liberal policies, tops this list. On Feb. 1, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new ICE policy went into effect: She would only honor federal immigration detainers in cases where someone has been charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human smuggling. Save for three, all of the detainers declined by Travis County on the federal list are dated Feb. 1.*

“The explanation’s pretty simple, really,” said Major Wes Priddy with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. “This first weekly report that ICE has decided to initiate falls during the period in which we implemented our new policy. … We applied the new policy to all those we had in custody, and it wasn’t just on detainers received during that week.”

For example, ICE asked Travis County to detain someone charged with drug possession on Oct. 16, 2010. Yet, according to the ICE list, the detainer was not declined until Feb. 1, 2017. According to an ICE official, that is the date they were made aware that the 2010 detainer had not been honored. Roughly 73 percent of detainers declined by Travis County were issued before 2017.

“If they start delivering subsequent reports like they say … you’ll see the numbers for Travis County come down,” said Priddy.

After nearly declining an ICE detainer issued for a man accused of molesting a child, Hernandez said she would consider expanding her policy to include crimes committed against children and elderly.

The sheriff’s new policy has caused the county to lose grant money from the state. The same day the policy went into effect, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cancelled nearly $1.5 million in grant money, calling Hernandez’s policy “a dangerous game of political Russian roulette.” A bill that would ban so-called “sanctuary cities” is making its way through the state legislature.

“The Travis County Sheriff’s decision to deny ICE detainer requests and release back into our communities criminals charged with heinous crimes – including sexual offenses against children, domestic violence and kidnapping – is dangerous and should be criminal in itself,” Abbott wrote in a statement. “Texas will act to put an end to sanctuary policies that put the lives of our citizens at risk.”

This afternoon, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt issued a statement on the report. She said the county’s mission is to enforce the state’s criminal laws.

“We concentrate on bringing the accused to justice. Questionable immigration status is not evidence in our state criminal justice system,” wrote Eckhardt.

One of the arguments for eliminating so-called “sanctuary city” policies is that those policies allow criminals to remain in the U.S. But Eckhardt argues this point is disputed by the data.

“The crime rate in Travis County has steadily declined in recent years, dropping by approximately 30% since 2007,” Eckhardt said. “We are proud to have the lowest crime rate of any other major urbanized area in Texas. This data shows we are serious about public safety in Travis County.”

Williamson and Bastrop counties are the only other Texas jurisdictions on the federal agency’s list, with Williamson denying four detainer requests and Bastrop declining three. But the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office is saying this number is inaccurate, and that it has honored all detainer requests.

In November, voters elected Hernandez, who campaigned on a promise to reverse the practice the previous sheriff had of honoring all ICE detainer requests.

*An earlier version of this story said all detainer decline dates for Travis County were Feb. 1, 2017. Travis County declined three detainer requests on Feb. 2, 2017.

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Photo by Miguel Guttierrez Jr./ KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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