Analysis: Local spike in immigration detentions echoed across state

6:30 p.m Friday, April 7, 2017 Politics
Gatehouse Media
Gatehouse Media

Texas saw the number of detention requests for jailed immigrants surge upward in February in the largest recorded monthly increase, showing the remarkably tangible effect President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies are having on county jails, according to an American-Statesman analysis.

The analysis is the first to be done on statewide numbers since Trump took office and the first in the country showing how rapidly federal immigration officials are re-enacting old policies that could lead to the deportation of thousands of people suspected of living in the country without authorization.

“This is completely consistent with a very rapid reset,” said Randy Capps, research director at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “This is the first I have seen of it.”

The increase is the largest ever since the Texas Commission on Jail Standards began tracking the data in 2011. In February alone, the state saw the number of inmates with immigration detention requests, or “detainers,” jump nearly 57 percent, from 2,989 to 4,684.

The total number of Texas inmates with detainers requested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is still far from its peak in August 2012, when county jails held about 6,200 inmates suspected of illegal immigration, according to weekly reports issued by the commission.

But experts told the Statesman that they expect to see the number of inmates with detainers rise even higher as ICE ramps up jail programs that in recent years have become the agency’s chief mechanism for capturing and deporting people found to be in the country illegally.

“I’m sure this is the case all over the country,” Jessica M. Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said about the increase. “I think we can expect them to go back to the peak of the Secure Communities program.”

Trump’s executive order in January unraveled an Obama administration policy that emphasized the deportation of violent and repeat offenders. The new policy essentially put the controversial Secure Communities program back in place. That 2008 program, though, had drawn public opposition within a few years of its start because it established deportation proceedings for any immigrant charged with a crime, large or small. Many local law enforcement agencies felt the program undermined trust between officers and their immigrant residents.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who was elected last year as an opponent of hard-line immigration policies, has been resisting ICE actions at her jail. A policy she enacted in February limits compliance with ICE detention requests to those charged with the most serious crimes, such as murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking. But even under this so-called sanctuary policy, the number of Travis County inmates with detainers increased 11 percent from 227 to 252. Among Texas counties, it had the fifth-highest number of inmates with detainers in Texas.

Hernandez’s policy prompted a reaction from ICE, which has conducted two sweeps in the Austin area that have resulted in more than 70 arrests. But experts said the jails are where the agency will continue to take in the majority of immigrants to be processed for deportation.

“(ICE) will continue their operations in the field, but they will be small in scale, I think, for the foreseeable future unless they hire a lot more officers,” Capps said “So the real numbers will be those detained at jails.”

Urban counties accounted for the lion’s share of the increase in February. Harris County led all counties with inmates who had detention requests placed upon them: 1,006 at Houston-area jails, a jump from 534 people the previous month. The county made headlines recently when Sheriff Ed Gonzalez decided to end a program that granted some sheriff’s deputies the powers of ICE agents.

Gonzalez didn’t respond to the Statesman’s request for comment.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards began tracking data from local jails after state lawmakers pushed for the data to be used to seek reimbursement from the federal government for housing inmates for federal agencies. ICE also has agreements with county jails, such as the Burnet County Jail, that supplement its numerous federal detention facilities throughout the state, including one in Taylor.

Despite the increase in inmates with detainers, experts said deportations will still be constrained by logistical issues, such as the capacity of the federal immigration courts that will see an increase in caseloads, Capps said. ICE is also limited by the number of agents it can allocate to detain inmates for deportation.

Far-flung counties are likely to see inmates suspected of being undocumented immigrants released even with an ICE detainer. The requests only give 48 hours for agents to pick up an inmate, once their release is authorized by local county and state courts.

“People will applaud the move as addressing some of the public safety and security concerns that appear to have not been addressed as well in the Obama years,” Capps said. “On the other hand, there will also be concerns about immigrant communities and their fear of interacting with the police and the general well-being of immigrant families that are affected by this.”

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