ICE de­nies tar­get­ing Austin area

But agents say more en­force­ment needed in places such as Travis where of­fi­cials don’t fully co­op­er­ate.

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

Fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials Tues­day evening de­nied that a new pol­icy by Sher­iff Sally Her­nan­dez led them to con­duct a ma­jor en­force­ment op­er­a­tion in the Austin area. But, in a hint of their chang­ing strat­egy, fed­eral agents said more en­force­ment is needed in places such as Travis County where lo­cal au­thor­i­ties don’t fully co­op­er­ate with them.

“Ru­mors and re­ports that re­cent ICE op­er­a­tions are specif­i­cally tar­get­ing Travis County, apart from nor­mal op­er­a­tions, are in­ac­cu­rate,” a U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment state­ment said. “How­ever, more ICE op­er­a­tional ac­tiv­ity is re­quired to con­duct at-large ar­rests in any law en­force­ment ju­ris­dic­tion that fails to honor ICE im­mi­gra­tion de­tain­ers.”

The state­ment came a day af­ter a rev­e­la­tion from a U.S. mag­is­trate judge that fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents targeted Austin for a ma­jor op­er­a­tion in re­sponse to a so-called sanc­tu­ary pol­icy en­acted by Her­nan­dez. That dis­clo­sure prompted swift con­dem­na­tion Tues­day from county lead­ers, a civil rights group and ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants.

Travis County Com­mis­sioner Ger­ald Daugh­erty, a Repub­li­can who has tried to fos­ter a re­la­tion­ship with of­fi­cials from ICE’s re­gional of­fice, ac­cused fed­eral agents of dis- hon­esty based on a meet­ing he had with them late last month. Daugh­erty had said ICE of­fi­cials in­sisted they weren’t tar­get­ing the Austin area and were in­stead con­duct­ing rou­tine op­er­a­tions.

“I’m sorry that ICE lied to me be­cause they told me there was not a tar­get, and I have to think a judge is telling the truth,” Daugh­erty told the Amer­i­can-States­man

and KVUE-TV on Tues­day. He has been a vo­cal op­po­nent of Her­nan­dez’s pol­icy.

“I’ll prob­a­bly make a phone call to ICE and say, ‘I’d rather you be com­pletely hon­est with me when­ever I ask you a ques­tion,’ ” Daugh­erty said.

U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge An­drew Austin re­vealed in a hear­ing Mon­day that ICE in­formed him and fel­low Mag­is­trate Mark Lane prior to the mid-Fe­bru­ary op­er­a­tion that the op­er­a­tion “was the re­sult of the sher­iff’s new pol­icy.”

“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,” Austin said.

The op­er­a­tion, which led to the ar­rests of 51 peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally, put Austin on edge and led some fam­i­lies to shel­ter in their homes for days. Par­ents pulled chil­dren out of school, and oth­ers didn’t go to work.

The States­man later re­ported that of those ar­rested, 28 didn’t have crim­i­nal records and that the per­cent­age of “non­crim­i­nals” ar­rested as part of the na­tional Op­er­a­tion Cross Check was sig­nif­i­cantly higher in Austin than in the four other metro ar­eas where sim­i­lar op­er­a­tions oc­curred. ICE of­fi­cials had said the op­er­a­tion was fo­cused on ap­pre­hend­ing “crim­i­nal aliens” with records of vi­o­lence.

The op­er­a­tion came about a month af­ter the newly elected Her­nan­dez an­nounced she would deny most re­quests from ICE to de­tain jail in­mates for fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion checks be­fore re­leas­ing them. Her­nan­dez is only hon­or­ing ICE re­quests when the in­mate is charged with one of four crimes: cap­i­tal mur­der, mur­der, ag­gra­vated sex­ual as­sault or con­tin­u­ous hu­man smug­gling.

State law­mak­ers are now con­sid­er­ing a law to re­quire Texas sher­iffs to fully com­ply with such ICE “de­tain­ers” or fine them civilly or crim­i­nally if they don’t.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eck­hardt, who met with ICE of­fi­cial Dan Bi­ble soon af­ter the raids and had said he told her there was no Austin-spe­cific op­er­a­tion, said Tues­day there is only one ex­pla­na­tion for the higher level of re­cent ICE ac­tiv­ity in the area.

“Al­though we by no met­ric could be said to have a pre­pon­der­ance of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants com­pared to other ur­ban­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and cer­tainly we have an en­vi­able crime rate with re­gard to other ur­ban­ized ar­eas in Texas, the only ex­pla­na­tion for the high ICE ac­tiv­ity in our re­gion would be po­lit­i­cal,” she said.

Austin City Coun­cil Mem­ber Greg Casar, who has been among the most out­spo­ken ICE crit­ics said, “By defini­tion, these types of en­force­ment ac­tions are not about pub­lic safety. They are about send­ing a po­lit­i­cal message.”

Lo­cal groups also re­sponded Tues­day to the judge’s rev­e­la­tion by is­su­ing a flurry of writ­ten state­ments.

“This rev­e­la­tion in open court proves what im­mi­grants and ad­vo­cates have known for years — that ICE reg­u­larly lies to im­mi­grants, lo­cal of­fi­cials, and the me­dia,” said Bob Libal, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Grass­roots Lead­er­ship, a group that works to sup­port im­mi­grants. “Now more than ever, of­fi­cials at ev­ery level of gov­ern­ment should re­think their re­la­tion­ship with this agency, and cut ties with an en­tity that used its power to ter­ror­ize our com­mu­nity and then lies to elected of­fi­cials about the rea­son for its op­er­a­tion.”

Mimi Marziani, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said, “We now have ev­i­dence that ICE’s ini­tial pub­lic state­ments about the Fe­bru­ary raids were not ac­cu­rate. The no­tion that gov­ern­ment ac­tors would use im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties to pun­ish po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries is wildly dis­turb­ing.”

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