ICE of­fi­cials deny tar­get­ing Austin

Lo­cal lead­ers meet with the re­gional im­mi­gra­tion di­rec­tor be­hind closed doors about area op­er­a­tions.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Plo­het­ski tplo­het­ski@states­man.com

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 they­in­vited 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.”

Moore

Trox­clair

Daugh­erty

Eck­hardt

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