Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez is disputing the details given by federal immigration officials who touted the arrest of a known Mexican gang member and four-time deportee and their claim that he was released from the Travis County Jail in June despite a request to detain him.
Julio Cesar Mendoza-Caballero, 33, had been booked into the jail June 16 on a misdemeanor assault charge and a city ordinance violation, according to jail authorities. The same day, Mendoza-Caballero walked free on a personal recognizance bond, and remained free until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested him at an Austin home on July 14.
ICE on Tuesday had said in a statement that the sheriff’s office had released Mendoza-Caballero, a “documented ‘Sureños 13’ Mexican gang member,” without notifying them, even though a request to keep him in jail, called a detainer, had been filed to keep him in custody.
Within hours, though, the sheriff’s office issued a statement of its own, explaining that ICE was notified of Mendoza-Caballero’s release, and no court orders or warrants were filed to provide probable cause to keep him jailed.
“In actuality, ICE was notified of the declined detainer request June 16, 2017, at 2:41 p.m.,” the sheriff’s office said. “The Austin branch of ICE was also notified via its official email address.”
Mendoza walked out of the facility at 8:52 p.m., according to the sheriff’s office.
The American-Statesman requested copies of emails between the two agencies regarding Mendoza-Caballero, but didn’t receive them by press time.
Hernandez said ICE had every opportunity to produce documentation to hold Mendoza-Caballero, but didn’t.
“The charge, which was a Class A misdemeanor and then a Class C ordinance charge, doesn’t fall in our threshold, and so we declined the detainer, and the subject made bond,” Hernandez said. “They had six hours before he was released, and during that six hours they could have produced a removal order or a warrant and they did neither.”
ICE said that “pursuant to ICE policy, all ICE detainers are submitted with an accompanying administrative arrest warrant or warrant of removal depending upon the circumstance of the individual case.”
Hernandez, however, said an administrative warrant isn’t enough.
“It’s not signed by a magistrate, so it holds the same power as a detainer,” Hernandez said.
She said sheriff’s deputies have worked closely with ICE on a number of occasions, reconsidered detainer requests and honored removal orders and warrants, so she was a little surprised by Tuesday’s statement from ICE.
“I believe that immigration overreacted, and I believe that it may have been a little politically based,” she said, adding that she still believes her policy makes Travis County safer.
Hernandez placed herself smack in the middle of an intense debate about so-called sanctuary cities earlier this year when she announced she wouldn’t cooperate with all federal immigration detainers filed at the jail. Hernandez’s policy on detainers said she would only comply with the requests under certain circumstances related to a handful of serious charges.
The policy, which earned her the moniker “Sanctuary Sally” among county Republicans, was rendered illegal with the passage of Senate Bill 4, Texas’ so-called sanctuary cities ban, slated to go into effect Sept. 1. The law punishes police chiefs and sheriffs who discourage their rank and file from asking detainees about their immigration status.
ICE said Mendoza-Caballero was convicted of stealing a firearm in Hopkins County in 2008 and of illegally entering the United States in Arizona. He had been removed from the country four times before, with the latest removal in 2013. Texas Department of Public Safety records show he was also convicted of misdemeanor prostitution in Travis County in 2009.
“(ICE) talked in their press release about how this person was deported four times. So, he’s now in their custody, probably deported the fifth time. Does that make our community safer? I say no,” Hernandez said.
ICE issued another statement Wednesday to clarify the action the agency took before Mendoza-Caballero’s release. It said it placed an immigration detainer accompanied by a warrant of removal and notified the sheriff’s office of the federal agency’s intent to take Mendoza-Caballero into custody.
“However, TCSO declined the detainer, despite being made aware of Mendoza-Caballero’s criminal history and gang ties,” the agency said. “Upon declination of the detainer by TCSO, ICE asked TCSO to reconsider its decision to decline the detainer, again emphasizing Mendoza-Caballero’s criminal history and gang ties.”
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark said authorities at the jail received an administrative warrant from ICE, but not an order of removal, and that the sheriff’s office has no record of any communication from ICE urging the sheriff’s office to reconsider.
Republicans immediately seized on the news of Mendoza-Caballero’s release to illustrate how Hernandez’s policy puts area residents at risk.
“‘Sanctuary Sally’ recklessly went forward with her Sanctuary policy in January, against the recommendation of her predecessor, Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Texas Legislature,” said Matt Mackowiak, Travis County GOP chairman. “Now she is purposefully endangering the public by releasing known gang members with criminal convictions and multiple previous deportations back into our county. Does an innocent Travis County resident have to die for Sheriff Hernandez to wake up?”
Gov. Greg Abbott also took issue with the policy and made SB 4 a priority for the Legislature.
In January, federal officials told two magistrate judges they would target Austin in a major immigration operation dubbed “Operation Cross Check” that was, in part, retribution for Hernandez’s policy on detainers. The February operation resulted in the arrest of 51 people.
Activists promptly mobilized across the city, staging marches and protests to protect undocumented immigrants from arrest, while Austin police and city leaders complained that they were being left in the dark as ICE remained largely silent while raids went on.
Supporters of the action praised the tactic, saying it was keeping undocumented criminals off the streets and improving community safety.
Of the 51 people arrested during the operation, 23 were previously identified by ICE as having criminal convictions, but 28 were deemed “non-criminals” by the immigration agency — meaning those people didn’t have previous criminal convictions but were suspected of being in the country illegally.
Of the 23 who had been convicted of previous crimes, nine were convicted of drunken driving, two for assault and two for sexual offenses involving children. Several of the individuals had been convicted of marijuana possession, obstructing the police and drug trafficking.
“It is unfortunate that once again, ICE has presented inaccurate information in what appears to be an effort to publicly shame agencies with which it disagrees,” the sheriff’s office said. “Open communication between the Travis County Jail and ICE is a daily, if not hourly occurrence. A simple phone call or email would have clarified their error privately and professionally.”