By Sean Collins Walsh, American-Statesman
In pushing for increased coordination between federal immigration agencies and local law enforcement, the Trump administration has contended that those types of partnerships are key to ridding the country of unauthorized immigrants who are violent criminals.
But in President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the largest increase in deportations through the most prominent of those partnerships, the Secure Communities program, was not of murderers or rapists but of immigrants who allegedly committed traffic violations, according to new federal data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The number of deportations for traffic violators increased 138 percent from 2016 to 2017, the data show. The next-highest percentage increases were of people accused of public order crimes, disorderly conduct, failure to appear in court and licensing violations.
The trend in the data on Secure Communities has special significance for Texas in light of the debate over Senate Bill 4, the state law enacted last year that aims to ban so-called sanctuary cities and counties that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement.
Like Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott has pitched local-federal immigration enforcement partnerships as a way to get violent criminals off the streets. During the debate over SB 4, he waged a war of words with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who had recently limited her department’s cooperation with federal immigration officers.
“We all support legal immigration. It helped build America and Texas,” Abbott said in a Facebook Live broadcast while signing the bill into law. “But legal immigration is different from harboring people who have committed dangerous crimes. This law cracks down on policies like the Travis County sheriff who declared that she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes.”
The Republican state senator who wrote the bill responded to the study by saying he has no confidence in any of the research into the Secure Communities program, “on either side.”
The data appears to support one of the chief objections raised by opponents of the new law: that it will create what Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, called a “broken taillights to broken families” system of enforcement.
“The rhetoric is that Secure Communities is absolutely essential, and failure to cooperate (with it) is leading all these serious criminals out there,” wrote Susan Long, a managerial statistics professor at Syracuse University who co-directs the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse program.
The shift, Long said, might be explained less by Trump’s words than by his administration’s actions. Weeks after Trump took office, the Homeland Security Department announced it would shift away from focusing on violent criminals, as President Barack Obama had done in the second half of his tenure, and would target all unauthorized immigrants.
“It should be anticipated by the fact that everyone now is a target,” Long said. “They repeatedly say that. No one is exempt.”
Arrests of unauthorized immigrants on relatively minor offenses has stirred outrage among critics of harsh enforcement tactics.
When Wimberley resident Victor Alejandro Avendano-Ramirez was pulled over in late January for failing to come to a complete stop in Kyle, police took him into custody after finding two warrants out for his arrest and handed him over to ICE. The warrants were both for charges stemming from Avendano-Ramirez’s status as an unauthorized immigrant: driving without a license and failing to appear in court, both misdemeanors.
He was released from custody in February after advocates held rallies and submitted petitions on his behalf.
Secure Communities 2.0
In 2008, President George W. Bush established Secure Communities as a pilot program, with Harris County the first local jurisdiction to sign on. It expanded greatly under the Obama administration, reaching a peak of 83,000 deportations in 2012.
In 2014, however, Obama replaced Secure Communities with the Priority Enforcement Program, which sought to target only serious criminals rather than any unauthorized immigrant who ended up in state or local police custody.
By 2016, Obama’s last year in office, deportations through the program had fallen to 57,000, according to clearinghouse’s data, which it obtains through federal open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. After Trump reinstated Secure Communities, the number of deportations spiked to 68,000 in 2017.
Total deportations during that time, including recent border crossers arrested by the Border Patrol and other ICE-led enforcement operations, fell consistently from 408,000 in 2012 to 226,000 in 2017, when border crossings fell to historic lows amid what’s been called the Trump effect.
In jurisdictions participating in Secure Communities, the names and fingerprints of subjects arrested by state and local law officers are processed through an ICE database. For suspects believed to have immigration violations, federal agents then submit detainers, which are requests to hold the suspects, who may have otherwise been released, for up to 72 hours to give ICE time to arrest them.
Long said ICE in recent months has become more opaque with public records and data and won’t explain what exactly flags deportation cases as related to the Secure Communities program in its database. She suspects ICE is counting every instance in which there was a fingerprint match.
‘Rule of law’ bill
SB 4 requires local jurisdictions to cooperate with federal detainer requests and prohibits city police chiefs and county sheriffs from discouraging their officers from inquiring about subjects’ immigration statuses.
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who authored the measure, called it a “rule of law bill” and not a deportation measure.
“You cannot have rogue and renegade jurisdictions across this country,” he said. “If you’re here illegally and you are legally detained and your citizenship is not something that is part of our system because you came in illegally, you’re an illegal criminal at that point.”
Perry said he had not seen the new study and questioned whether it is an accurate depiction of deportations under Secure Communities.
“I don’t have any confidence in any research today on either side of this,” he said.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said the trend toward deporting less serious offenders will worsen what critics of SB 4 have argued is one of the law’s greatest dangers, that tasking local and state officers with immigration duties will damage relationships between police and Latino neighborhoods.
The perception that any interaction with police officers could lead to deportations will make unauthorized immigrants less likely to report crimes or seek protection from domestic abuse, he said.
“They can say it’s about public safety, about people who are violent criminals. But whether we like it or not, there are undocumented people in our communities, and they witness crimes,” he said. “This is making us less safe.”