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ICE denies targeting Austin, but says more enforcement needed

22 Mar

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 dishonesty 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 “non-criminals” 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.”