The era of full cooperation with federal immigration authorities at the Travis County Jail is poised to come to an end in January with the likely election of Constable Sally Hernandez, the Democratic candidate for sheriff who has said she won’t honor all requests to turn over undocumented immigrants.
It’s a position that immigration activists have championed since retiring Sheriff Greg Hamilton announced in 2008 that agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have unfettered access to the jail.
“This is years in the making,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership. “If whoever the sheriff is adopts a policy like many of these other communities around the country that limits ICE’s ability, that is a good thing for immigrants, and it is a good thing for public safety.”
But Hernandez’s critics say ending all cooperation with ICE would make Austin a “sanctuary city,” a term for communities that do not fully cooperate with ICE requests, such as New Orleans or Denver. The label has drawn the ire from state lawmakers who have signaled a willingness to punish uncooperative communities via their pocketbook.
“Her proposal is radical,” said Matt Mackowiak, a local Republican political consultant advising Hernandez’s GOP opponent, Joe Martinez. “I think she is going to have a tough time explaining why she endangered public safety as a sheriff.”
Any policy change would come as the number of ICE “detainers” — requests for Travis County jailers to deny the release of suspected undocumented immigrants — is the lowest it has been in years, the American-Statesman found. An analysis of more than 9,000 immigration holds also showed that federal agents in recent years more often targeted inmates charged with severe crimes.
The Statesman analyzed every detainer ICE has filed at the Travis County Jail for the past 10 years and found the following:
- ICE has filed nearly 9,500 detainers at the Travis County Jail since 2006. The vast majority occurred after 2009 when the Secure Communities program, which tried to intercept undocumented immigrants at local jails, accelerated. At its peak, the federal agency flagged more than 2,600 people for detention in 2010.
- The number of detainers has dropped precipitously since then. ICE has filed detainers for more than 290 individuals so far this year — more than the 243 filed in 2015, but far less than any other year while Secure Communities was active.
- So far, 2016 marks the first time most of the ICE detainers are for immigrant inmates facing felony charges. In the past, typically 80 percent of inmates with ICE detainers were facing misdemeanor charges.
- Undocumented immigrants intercepted at the Travis County Jail are almost always men. Most are from Mexico and are between the ages of 20 and 37.
- More than half of all ICE detainers were placed on people charged with only one misdemeanor. Driving while intoxicated was by far the most common offense attached to a detainer. A single unspecified traffic offense was enough for ICE to file detainers on 381 individuals.
When someone is arrested and booked for a crime, their fingerprints are sent to a federal database, through which ICE agents might find out that the person is in the country illegally. Immigration officials use ICE detainers to ask local jails to hold undocumented inmates for an additional 48 hours if they qualify for release. The extra time allows agents to intercept inmates before they are freed.
Each day at the Travis County Jail, ICE agents sometimes pick up individuals and check jail rolls up to three times.
It is unclear how those day-to-day operations would change if Hernandez is elected Travis County’s top cop. Hernandez had vowed to cut all cooperation with ICE early on in her campaign (her website continued to tout that position last week). However, she has since walked back her stance to something resembling what Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez enacted at her jail: Hernandez recently told the Statesman that, if elected, she would likely look at detainers on a case-by-case basis, but said she would need to sit down with ICE officials before crafting any formal policy.
But refusing ICE detainers could be as easy as simply ignoring them.
Secure Communities began in 2008 and was greatly expanded during the Obama administration. In late 2014, Secure Communities was shuttered and replaced the next year by the Priority Enforcement Program.
According to ICE, the successor PEP program targets individuals convicted of certain, unspecified serious crimes and people found to be involved in criminal gang enterprises. But the agency continues to rely on local authorities to hold arrested undocumented immigrants in custody for 48 hours while authorities determine if whether there is probable cause for the agency to deport them.
Local ICE officials refused to make anyone available for an interview for questions about how PEP is enforced, but provided an emailed statement: “With the implementation of the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) in July 2015, many law enforcement agencies, including some large jurisdictions, are now once again cooperating with ICE,” the statement said.
Even as Travis County records show the agency appearing to be more concerned with suspected felons, the records also show the agency still requests holds for people charged with single traffic offenses.
For instance, on Wednesday a 27-year-old Mexican citizen named Gabino Capuzano-Pedraza was released into ICE custody, the records show. Capuzano-Pedraza’s only listed charge was a single, unspecified traffic offense.
The day before, ICE filed detainers on three people charged with driving while intoxicated. One of them, a 36-year-old named Jose Luis Rivera, was handed over to ICE one day after being cleared for release.
Not all detainer targets are solely charged with misdemeanors. Earlier this month, ICE filed a detainer on Sai Sandeep Goud Kurremula, a 27-year-old from India who is charged with murder in the July 18 killing of his 24-year-old roommate, Sankirth Gundam, at their Northwest Austin apartment.
Lower-level crimes that result in detainers continue to worry immigrant advocates. Libal said ICE programs can still break up families and exacerbate the challenges immigrant families already face.
“It breeds distrust and makes them reluctant to report crimes,” he said. “If someone serves their time and is rehabilitated, why deport them?”
But Mackowiak said people should look at the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle if they want to see the consequences of ending cooperation with ICE.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant convicted of multiple felonies in the United States and deported five times, is accused of killing Steinle, 32, in San Francisco. He told local media that he chose to live in San Francisco in part because of its liberal laws towards immigrants.
“That’s the nightmare scenario: that you have a preventable, heinous crime because of the proposal of a Travis County official,” Mackowiak said. “I hope it never happens, hope she (Hernandez) wises up. But I also hope she loses.”