Mag­is­trate: ICE sought to tar­get Austin

Agency said sting was ret­ri­bu­tion for sher­iff’s new pol­icy, judge says.

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

Fed­eral agents pri­vately alerted two mag­is­trate judges in late Jan­uary that they would be tar­get­ing the Austin area for a ma­jor op­er­a­tion and that the sting was ret­ri­bu­tion for a new pol­icy by Travis County Sher­iff Sally Her­nan­dez that dra­mat­i­cally limited her co­op­er­a­tion with them, ac­cord­ing to one of the judges.

The rev­e­la­tion — made Mon­day in open court by U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge An­drew Austin — con­flicts with what Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fi­cials told lo­cal lead­ers af­ter the sweep, when ICE char­ac­ter­ized the op­er­a­tion as rou­tine and said the Austin area was not be­ing tar­geted. It also pro­vides ev­i­dence af­ter weeks of spec­u­la­tion that Her­nan­dez’s pol­icy trig­gered ICE’s ire.

“We had a brief­ing … that we could ex­pect a big op­er­a­tion, agents com­ing in from out of town, that it was go­ing to be a spe­cific op­er­a­tion, and at least it was re­lated to us in that meet­ing that it was the re­sult of the sher­iff ’s new pol­icy that this was go­ing to hap­pen,” Austin said. “My un­der­stand­ing, what was told to us, is that one of the rea­sons that hap­pened was be­cause the meet­ings that had oc­curred be­tween the (ICE) field of­fice di­rec­tor and the sher­iff didn’t go very well.”

Agent Laron Bryant, who has worked in the Austin ICE of­fice since last sum­mer, said he did not know about the meet­ing be­tween Her­nan­dez and ICE, and said the

judge’s con­cerns were new in­for­ma­tion for him.

ICE of­fi­cials is­sued a state­ment about the mat­ter on Mon­day evening: “For op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity rea­sons, ICE does not dis­cuss fu­ture op­er­a­tions. How­ever, ICE con­ducts daily op­er­a­tions na­tion­wide tar­get­ing and ar­rest­ing crim­i­nal aliens and other in­di­vid­u­als who are in vi­o­la­tion of our na­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion laws for the safety and se­cu­rity of our com­mu­ni­ties.”

Kris­ten Dark, a spokes­woman for Her­nan­dez, said the sher­iff had no com­ment Mon­day be­cause she was not part of any con­ver­sa­tion be­tween ICE agents and judges. U.S. Mag­is­trate Mark Lane, who at­tended the meet­ing with Austin, also de­clined to com­ment.

The way the ICE agents con­ducted the op­er­a­tion — of­fi­cers pulled over peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally or went to their homes and busi­nesses to ar­rest them — was a sub­stan­tial change from how the agency has op­er­ated in Travis County. In the past, most ar­rests were prompted by im­mi­gra­tion checks on Travis County jail in­mates.

In the week of the mid-Fe­bru­ary raids, ru­mors swirled on so­cial me­dia, and after­ward came a vol­ley of ques­tions about why Austin was cho­sen for such an op­er­a­tion and whether the city should brace for more.

Two county of­fi­cials had told the Amer­i­can-States­man last month that they met with ICE re­gional field of­fi­cer Dan Bi­ble, who in­sisted that the agency was not tar­get­ing Austin.“He de­nied that there is a tar­get on Travis County’s back,” County Judge Sarah Eck­hardt said in a Feb. 28 in­ter­view. County Com­mis­sioner Ger­ald Daugh­erty said he re­ceived sim­i­lar in­for­ma­tion.

‘No new di­rec­tive’

The States­man re­ported last month that fed­eral doc­u­ments showed that of the 51 peo­ple ar­rested in the op­er­a­tion, 28 were de­scribed by ICE as “non-crim­i­nal,” mean­ing they didn’t have a crim­i­nal his­tory. The per­cent­age was sig­nif­i­cantly higher than in other cities where of­fi­cials con­ducted sim­i­lar op­er­a­tions: At­lanta, Chicago, New York and Los An­ge­les.

Her­nan­dez an­nounced her new pol­icy for han­dling re­quests to hold in­mates for ICE in Jan­uary — the same day Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was sworn in — in an eight-minute video.

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.

Mean­while, As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Mark Mar­shall said dur­ing Mon­day’s hear­ing that he and his of­fice have not re­ceived any new or­ders from Washington about how they should op­er­ate in the Austin area. “I have no new di­rec­tive from the at­tor­ney gen­eral or the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency,” Mar­shall said. “I sus­pect that is go­ing to be sev­eral months down the road.”

Judge Austin’s ques­tions for ICE of­fi­cials came dur­ing a hear­ing Mon­day for a de­fen­dant re­cently ar­rested as he showed up for a hear­ing in Travis County court — which also trig­gered alarms about a new ICE tac­tic. Juan Coronilla-Guer­rero was at­tend­ing a hear­ing on two mis­de­meanor charges, as­sault-fam­ily vi­o­lence and pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana, when ICE agents took him into cus­tody.

‘Iso­lated in­ci­dent’

When he was first ar­rested on those charges in Jan­uary, ICE agents had sought a so-called de­tainer for him in which they asked Her­nan­dez to con­tinue hold­ing him af­ter he posted bail, but Her­nan­dez de­nied it un­der her pol­icy. Agents then ob­tained an ar­rest war­rant charg­ing him with il­le­gal re-en­try into the U.S. be­cause he had been pre­vi­ously de­ported.

Bryant, who con­ducted the ar­rest with an­other agent, said they were in­structed by an as­sis­tant re­gional ICE di­rec­tor to ar­rest Coronilla-Guer­rero at the court­house, even though Bryant tes­ti­fied that he had never be­fore made such an ar­rest at the court­house.

Bryant said that upon ar­riv­ing at the court­room, he no­ti­fied a deputy on duty that he was there to ar­rest Coronilla-Guer­rero, and that he did so af­ter rid­ing down an el­e­va­tor with him fol­low­ing the hear­ing. “He told us he was here il­le­gally, and that was pretty much it,” Bryant said.

Bryant and the other of­fi­cer had re­straints with them for Coronilla-Guer­rero but had sur­ren­dered their guns at a se­cu­rity en­trance to the Black­well-Thur­man Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Cen­ter. Austin ex­pressed worry that had Coronilla-Guer­rero fled, agents and the pub­lic could have been at risk. “It is al­ways con­cern­ing when some­one gets ar­rested at the court­house,” he said.

Mar­shall told Austin, “Th­ese agents ap­pre­hended him in a rea­son­able and re­spect­ful man­ner. The agents acted pro­fes­sion­ally. They weren’t over­bear­ing.”

Near the end of the pro­ceed­ing, the judge asked Bryant about how ICE might work in Austin in the fu­ture: “Do you know if we are go­ing to con­tinue to have ar­rests like this one, where there are tar­geted peo­ple out­side the jails?”

Bryant re­sponded, “As far as I know, this in­ci­dent was an iso­lated in­ci­dent. This was not some­thing that is go­ing to be­come pat­tern or prac­tice, so to speak.”

CONTRIBUTED BY MICHAEL JOHN­SON / ICE

A U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fi­cer works Feb. 13 in Los An­ge­les. Two Travis County of­fi­cials last month said that an ICE re­gional field of­fi­cer told them that the agency was not tar­get­ing Austin.

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