Two weeks after federal immigration agents conducted a major operation in the area, local leaders have started a series of closed-door meetings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency regional officials, who insist they aren’t specifically targeting Austin.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt met with ICE regional field office director Dan Bible in Austin on Friday, as did County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair in a separate sit-down.
They said they invited Bible and his staff to explain the types of operations the agency conducts, who is generally targeted, and the issue of so-called “collateral arrests” — people who weren’t initially targeted by immigration agents but who might have been with suspects at the time of their arrest.
The officials also discussed a new controversial jail policy under which Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has dramatically limited her cooperation with the agency and questioned whether her position might have fueled the agency’s focus on the area.
“He denied that there is a target on Travis County’s back,” Eckhardt told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
Daugherty said, “I was interested to know, ‘Are you out doing these crazy roundups trying to snare people?’ … I was told that is absolutely not what they do. They are very strategic about what they do, and they aren’t into randomly going out and picking people up.”
ICE officials, however, provided no data to officials about how the number of arrests in Austin or Travis County this year compared with previous years or the identities of 51 people recently arrested in the Austin area as part of a sting called Operation Cross Check.
Eckhardt said she asked the agency to compile the number of collateral arrests in the past couple of years in Austin “to see if there had been a significant change.” However, she added that Bible told her he could only produce that data for his region — which extends from the border to near Waco — but that it wouldn’t be Austin-specific.
“It’s going to be very hard to extract information from that large of a sample,” she said.
The Statesman is seeking that and other information through a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Yet the meetings with local officials provide a measure of new details from an agency that almost entirely shields information about its operations from the public.
“It was an honest conversation,” Daugherty said. “I didn’t find them to be dodging me in any way. I thought they were straight-shooting me.”
District Attorney Margaret Moore and her staff also were meeting with Bible on Tuesday. Moore said she wants to better understand how her office can prosecute suspected felons on pending charges before they are possibly deported or taken to a federal holding facility.
ICE has been a local focus for weeks, beginning when Hernandez announced her new policy in January. She had said that she will only hold inmates for federal agents if they have been charged with murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.
The policy prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to strip $1.5 million in state grants from the county. State lawmakers are also considering legislation that would ban so-called sanctuary cities and require Texas sheriffs to fully comply with ICE or risk civil penalties and criminal charges.
Two weeks ago, the ICE operation in the Austin area also sparked fear that the city was being targeted for what many describe as its liberal immigration stance.
The Statesman reported last week that of the 51 people arrested, 28 were described by ICE as “non-criminal,” meaning they didn’t have a criminal history. The percentage was significantly higher than in other areas where officials were conducting similar operations, including Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
Daugherty said he also asked Bible specifically about Hernandez’s new policy, which Daugherty opposes.
“Their answer was, ‘We think we are entitled to detainers regardless of why they are in the jail,’” he said.
Asked Tuesday about the meetings, an agency spokeswoman said, “ICE officers routinely meet with local and state law enforcement officials as we further our partnerships with the San Antonio field office.”
An American-Statesman investigation uncovers new details and insights into the arrests of 51 people by ICE agents in an enforcement operation that focused on the Austin area.