Of the six candidates seeking to succeed Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, only one said he wants to keep the sheriff’s most controversial policy.
Private investigator Joe Martinez, the lone Republican in the field, told a forum Saturday evening that he would continue Travis County’s participation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that allows federal officials to monitor who is booked into the jail and detain inmates suspected of being unauthorized immigrants.
“We’re a country of laws, and wherever anybody comes from, they also live with law,” Martinez told the audience at the forum at the First Unitarian Universalist Church. “If we travel as a foreigner into another country, we have to obey and abide by their laws. As far as removing ICE, I would strongly recommend that we not remove ICE. I would strongly recommend that we maintain the current policy with the current Sheriff Hamilton — he’s done a great job.”
The policy has been criticized by groups such as Grassroots Leadership and the ICE Out of Austin Coalition, the hosts of Saturday’s forum, which contend the use of ICE detainers breaks up families and leads to deportation of people arrested for minor offenses.
But Martinez said if people obey the law, no one will bother them. The crowd, which included members of the immigrant community who had been incarcerated, booed Martinez after this answer.
“As a sheriff, you don’t have the option to select what law you’re going to enforce,” Martinez said. “You enforce all laws of the state and the United States.”
Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford, one of four Democrats competing in the March 1 primary, disagreed with Martinez and said Travis County does not have to participate in the ICE program.
“When somebody’s brought into the Travis County Correctional Facility, they answer for their state charges, and they should be released when they’re done,” Radford said. “The issue with ICE is that it needs to end and it needs to end immediately.”
Having Travis County deputies acting as immigration agents deteriorates trust with the community, Radford added.
The other Democratic candidates and Green Party candidate Debbie Russell also said they opposed the ICE program.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Don X. Rios noted that the first goal of his campaign was to end ICE detainers. He suggested his opposition was stronger than that of Radford or Constable Sally Hernandez, two of his opponents in the Democratic primary.
“It’s up to you to really look and see who you want as the next Travis County sheriff,” Rios said.
Former Austin police Lt. John Sisson, another Democratic candidate, said he’s been advocating to end Travis County’s participation in the ICE program since 2007, when he ran against Hamilton. He said a recent interview with the Austin American-Statesman’s editorial board showed some differences among the Democratic contenders.
“I was sitting with the editorial board, and the question was, ‘Will you cooperate with immigration officials?’ Todd (Radford) and Sally (Hernandez) said yes, they would, except for minor violations; Don (Rios) and I said no,” Sisson said. “You cannot pick and choose who goes and who stays.”
Hernandez countered that she’s been against the ICE program since 1997. She said she was insulted that other candidates said she wasn’t against the program.
“I believe that we have to renew our relationship with the immigrant community, and that means ending and getting ICE out of the jail,” she said.
Russell, a Del Valle school board trustee running for sheriff as a Green Party candidate, said the county’s participation in the ICE program is voluntary and should have ended “yesterday.” She said people shouldn’t be thrown out of the country for a speeding violation or minor offense.
All candidates expressed a desire to implement more face-to-face visits for jail inmates and reform mental health programs and services offered. All candidates also said they backed developing a peer support program for inmates.