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Sanctuary cities debate revolves around ICE detainers. But what are they?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Members of the Texas House of Representatives today will consider Senate Bill 4, popularly coined the “sanctuary cities” bill. The practices of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office have been heralded as a reason to pass this bill – one that would create criminal and civil penalties for law enforcement heads who do not honor all requests from the federal immigration agency, known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to detain undocumented immigrants beyond their criminal sentences.

But how does an ICE detainer request work?

From arrest to ICE contact

After an arrest is made in Travis County, that person is booked into the local jail. That’s when the sheriff’s office communicates with the federal government, including ICE.

“When they’re taken to the Travis County jail, they come through Central Booking and in Central Booking we fingerprint that individual,” said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. “And that is where it’s determined whether or not a person might be in the country illegally.”

Fingerprints are routed through the Texas Department of Public Safety and to several federal databases, including one for ICE. If the person’s biometrics or name indicates that the person may be an undocumented immigrant, ICE will issue a detainer request – a written request to hold that person beyond the usual time they would be held until a federal agent can pick him or her up.

“This is a request, essentially, that the person be held so that ICE can come to the jail and pick them up and put them into detention or, at the very least, into removal proceedings,” said Justin Estep, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

ICE detainer comes down

As of Feb. 1, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced a policy to only honor ICE detainer requests in the case someone has been charged with murder, human trafficking or aggravated sexual assault.

American Gateways’ Edna Yang reiterated that any ICE detainer requests that come down are just that – requests.

“Compliance is completely voluntary,” said Yang. “A law enforcement agency has the discretion to decide what kind of detainer they want to honor and under what circumstances they want to honor that detainer.”

Those cases where Travis County does honor detainer requests from ICE doesn’t mean that someone is immediately taken into ICE custody.

“They will have to face the American justice system before they go through ICE,” said Estep. “ICE is not gonna just say, ‘Oh you murdered someone and then all we’re going to do is deport you from the country.’ They will have to go through … whatever system they’re in, serve their time and then at that point they’d be immediately removed.”

In a sense, a detainer may be left pending until that person is released from custody – be it in a few days or after serving a five-year prison sentence.

So does this make Travis County a sanctuary city?

On Tuesday, Mayor Steve Adler met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get some clarity on the federal definition of “sanctuary city.” Sessions clarified that this is a jurisdiction that defies a federal code mandating the sharing of certain information by local law enforcement with ICE. Travis County maintains it is not violating that code.

“I specifically asked the question, ‘Would a city that was not honoring voluntary detainers be a city that was sanctionable under the president’s order directed at sanctuary cities?'” Adler told KUT’s Nathan Bernier. “And I was told no.”

On Tuesday, a federal judge in California blocked President Donald Trump’s executive order to cancel funds to jurisdictions considered “sanctuary.”

Photo of Sally Hernandez, Travis County Sheriff, at an April Travis County press briefing by Martin do Nascimento/KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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