Emails: ICE whiffed in hunt for Austin’s ‘egregious’ criminal immigrants


Highlights

ICE struggled to find ‘egregious’ criminals among the immigrants it arrested in Austin during February raids.

Critics say the emails demonstrate ICE conducted the raids for political reasons, not for public safety.

Austin, where a majority of those arrested had little or no criminal history, was a flash point in the raids.

As the first nationwide immigration raids of the Trump administration were unfolding in February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials struggled to justify their claims that they had netted serious criminals in the Austin area, according to internal emails published this week.

During the enforcement effort called Operation Cross Check, in which ICE seized 680 unauthorized immigrants across the country, the agency instructed its field offices to highlight three “egregious” cases of apprehended immigrants who had serious criminal backgrounds. But in Austin, where ICE arrested 51 immigrants, agents at first failed to come up with a single “egregious” case, the emails show.

“I have been pinged by HQ this morning indicating that we failed at this tasking,” one local official wrote, according to the emails, which were obtained by Vanderbilt University law students through a records request under the Freedom of Information Act and published by the online publication The Intercept.

Two days later, an official wrote in a follow-up email that agents “just picked up a criminal a few minutes ago, so get with him for your first egregious case.”

During the raids, local elected officials such as City Council Member Greg Casar criticized ICE, saying the enforcement actions did more to tear apart families than to improve public safety. ICE records show that more than half of the immigrants seized in Austin had little or no criminal history, the highest rate of noncriminals arrested in any city in the nation during the raids.

“The emails demonstrate that the raids here in Austin in February were motivated by PR purposes and not by any real public safety reasoning,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the privatization of prisons and immigrant detention centers. “It further demonstrates that ICE has no problems with purposefully deceiving local elected officials, the media and community organizations.”

Dan Bible, ICE’s field office director in San Antonio, said the agency “routinely conducts targeted enforcement operations.”

“As these operations are targeted and prioritized on individuals who pose a risk to public safety, it stands to reason that field office directors, ICE headquarters’ leadership, the media and the public would be interested in the most egregious offenders arrested during an operation,” Bible said in a statement.

READ: Austin is No.1 — for noncriminals arrested in ICE raids

A federal magistrate said at the time that ICE targeted Austin because of a so-called “sanctuary city” policy that had recently been adopted by Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez. Hernandez ended the policy, in which county jail officials would limit their cooperation with ICE, after the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 4, banning sanctuary cities.

Although ICE would not identify the apprehended immigrants, the American-Statesman found more than half of them and reported in March that several had criminal records, while others had no criminal history or had only immigration-related offenses and DWIs.

ICE’s justification for the raids and for targeting Austin has shifted over time. At first, the agency described it as a public safety initiative aimed only at apprehending hardened criminals. Later the agency characterized the February raid as a routine operation “targeting and arresting criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation’s immigration laws.”

Planning ‘Cross Check’

The email trail begins in November with one official — whose name was withheld, like everyone else’s in the heavily redacted emails — instructing another ICE employee to begin planning an operation for early 2017. The official specified that the Austin-San Antonio field office director “expects 20 to 25 targets per officer; good viable targets with a chance for apprehension.”

On Jan. 27, two weeks before Operation Cross Check, an official writes that officers came up with “a total of 250 targets for the Travis County Cross Check” and submits a request for “additional resources” to execute the plan: “Six five-man Fugitive Operations Teams, Six officers for processing, Two Officers for a Transport Unit.”

On Feb. 1, ICE officials discussed moving 40 immigrants already in the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall, near San Antonio, to the Coastal Bend Detention Center in Robstown to make room for those picked up during the raids.

The rest of the emails show officials handling a deluge of media requests during the raids and reacting to inquiries and statements by elected officials such as Casar; fellow Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair; state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio; and U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio.

A staffer for Troxclair, the lone conservative on the Austin council, emailed the ICE field office to ask about whether the raids were prompted by changes made by President Donald Trump’s administration, which was only a month old.

“With the media reporting fear in some populations in Austin about changes in policy, it might be useful information to know whether the pace or focus of immigration-related arrests is a new phenomenon associated with the change in federal-level leadership, or is a continuation of the previous administration’s policies,” the Troxclair staffer wrote.

Troxclair said Thursday that she met with ICE officials, who told her that the raids were not related to “a change in policy and that this was a continuation of their regular operations from the previous administration.”

“I trust our immigration officials,” she said in an interview. “It’s important to me that we keep our city safe and that we address crimes of all kinds.”

This story has been updated to include comment from ICE.



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