Sheriff to let federal immigration agents set up office in jail
Agents will look for undocumented immigrants
By Tony Plohetski
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton has agreed to let federal immigration agents set up an office in the county jail to more often monitor whether inmates booked into the downtown facility are legally in the United States.
Hamilton said this week that agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will likely be stationed in the jail 24 hours a day, seven days a week in coming months. They began increasing their presence in the facility late last year.
Until recently, federal officials said agents only occasionally visited the jail to check the immigration status among inmates but sought more access from Hamilton.
The increased presence has led agents to double — if not triple — the number of "immigration holds" it has traditionally placed on Travis County inmates for possible deportation, said Adrian Ramirez, assistant field office director for the San Antonio office of the federal immigration agency, whose region includes Austin. Specific numbers were not available Friday. The inmates include anyone from undocumented immigrants accused of felony crimes to others who were arrested for Class C misdemeanor traffic violations, such as running a red light or not having a driver's licenses, officials said.
"I'm really shocked that Travis County is working with the immigration officials to help carry out immigration policies that need to be revised," said Rita Gonzales-Garza, a co-district director of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "I would expect that of other counties, but it is unfortunate that it is occurring here."
Critics say that the increased enforcement could divide families in instances where a parent has U.S.-born children and affect the willingness of undocumented immigrants to work with local law enforcement officials to report and help solve crimes.
Hamilton, who met Thursday with concerned community groups, said he is only increasing the efficiency of federal immigration agents who have visited the jail looking for undocumented immigrants for at least two decades. He said his decision also is based on a belief that joint efforts between local and federal law enforcement agencies increase public safety.
"My contention is that the best way for (undocumented immigrants) to not come under scrutiny is to not commit crimes," Hamilton said.
Ramirez said agents since the 1980s have visited county jails across the nation to review forms that inmates fill out when they are booked into jail that ask their place of birth. They may request an interview with the inmates to determine whether they are legally in the United States.
Agents may place an immigration detainer on the inmates if they suspect they are undocumented immigrants.
Officials said such inmates generally remain in local jails until charges against them are resolved. From there they are moved to federal detention facilities, where their immigration cases are heard before a judge, who can order them to be deported. Ramirez said his region received federal money for more agents last June and that officials decided in October to focus their efforts in jails in Travis and Bexar counties, where they thought the number of undocumented immigrants was higher.
Ramirez said agents also are more frequently visiting jails throughout his 20-county region.
In Travis County, Ramirez said agents are trying to determine the immigration status of the 2,432 people already in jail. He said they plan to check the immigration status of new inmates when they are booked into jail.
Having an office in the Travis County Jail "is very important," he said. "In order for an officer to file a detainer, they have to interview that person. If we are there 24 hours a day, we can determine if the subject is removable. It is a lot easier."
In a four-page letter to Hamilton, attorney David Peek, whose clients include immigrants, said he is concerned about the number of inmates who will be forced to remain in jail and the cost to the county.
He said he also is worried that members of Austin's immigrant community will be afraid that interacting with local law enforcement officers could result in possible deportation.
Austin police have had a years-long practice of not questioning suspects or victims about their immigration status.
"This will have a wide-sweeping affect on the local economy, the community, untold businesses and the reputation which makes Austin great," the letter said.