The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes and identified for deportation, current and former U.S. officials said.
This is bad news. The Travis County Sheriff’s office joined this program here in Austin not long ago. The vast majority of immigrants caught by ICE here had been charged with misdemeanors. The Post implies that only immigrants convicted of crimes will be deported by this program, but some individuals here have been deported simply because they were arrested and then discovered by ICE agents, two of whom I saw freely walking around at the local jail last year.
I’m printing below the original version of an op-ed piece I wrote for the Daily Texan last summer, entitled “ICE does not belong in Austin’s jail.”
The Travis County Jail looks like an office building. Its clean white walls, dotted with windows, rise five stories high next to a courthouse in Austin’s downtown. Many students know it as the place they might end up if they drink too much during a night out on Sixth Street.
For Austin’s immigrant community, particularly those who are undocumented, the prospect of landing in the jail recently became far more frightening.
In January news broke that Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton was establishing an expanded and permanent office space for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the jail. ICE, a division of Homeland Security, requested the space to beef up its presence in the jail, as part of its escalating enforcement-only approach to immigration. The agency made 4,900 arrests in 2007, almost a tenfold increase from 2002, largely due to hundreds of brazen raids on factories, schools, nightclubs, and workplaces nationwide.
ICE’s raids, like the 15-foot-high border wall, do nothing to address the root causes of illegal immigration. But they generate the kind of insecurity and fear that immigrants in their communities tried to escape when they left home, where economic mobility and human rights are often in short supply, due largely to US-backed “free trade” policies and support for right-wing authoritarians across much of the Global South.
The raids break up families when a parent is suddenly detained or deported. In San Pedro, California, a school principal told the news magazine In These Times that the raids and presence of ICE agents near the school has created a climate of “ongoing, relentless terror,” with more students absent from school or distracted by the possibility of their parents being deported before they arrive home. After a huge ICE raid in Iowa last month, detainees alleged in a federal lawsuit that many immigrants’ children were left stranded with baby sitters and other caretakers.
Once an undocumented worker is in custody, he or she may be drugged and sedated without consent, according to a recent Washington Post report. The paper identified more than 250 cases in which detainees were given “dangerous antipsychotic drugs” before being deported, without any medical reason.
Last year Sen. Ted Kennedy prompted ICE to adopt a set of discretionary humanitarian guidelines, but immigrants rights’ advocates say they are not being enforced. And ICE detainees are often denied a speedy hearing or access to immigration lawyers.
Austin became an official sanctuary city for immigrants in 1997, prohibiting police from checking a person’s immigration status or reporting it to the federal government. But that label is rendered almost meaningless by Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s unilateral decision to facilitate ICE’s expansion into the Travis County Jail. The first three months of this year saw a 400 percent increase in immigration holds placed by federal agents on persons brought to the county jail over last year. 62 percent of those individuals were charged with misdemeanors, and some with no crime at all.
The impact of ICE’s near-24-hour presence in the jail goes well beyond its increased capacity for detaining and deporting inmates. It brings the climate of fear associated with raids and the prospect of deportation into our community. The installation of ICE at the local jail, along with closer cooperation with local police, is a powerful deterrent to immigrants and undocumented workers in Austin from reporting crimes.
“There’s a very bad feeling in the community about ICE to start with,” Jim Harrington, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told a community forum in March. “When that is tied in with the perception that there’s going to be collusion or cooperation it creates a reluctance on the part of the community to use law enforcement,” he said. Many say that ICE’s office at the jail will lead to an increase in racial profiling.
Even though undocumented workers commit less crimes on average than the general population, this decision puts Austin’s immigrant population at significant risk of inhumane treatment, detention, deportation, and family separation by an agency notorious for its hostility to immigrants. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, threatening one of the few sanctuaries immigrants have left is not a just or effective solution.