August 5, 2008

Immigrant groups push 'citation option'

Posted: Aug 4, 2008 08:39 AM PDT

AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) -- There is a renewed push to keep illegal immigrants out of the Travis County Jail.

Some immigrant rights groups are urging pushing Austin City Council members to endorse the idea of officers writing more tickets, for what's called the "citation option," for misdemeanors rather than taking offenders to jail.

They said it would cut down on the number of people facing deportation because of an increased presence by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at the jail.

The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency increased its presence to 12 field agents in the jail in the past year, according to the agency.

Agents place "detainers," or holds, on people arrested and booked into the jail if suspected of being in the country illegally.

Since January 1st , 1303 people booked into the Travis County jail have had INS detainers placed on them, according to Travis County Sheriff's Department Spokesman Roger Wade.

But immigrants' rights groups point to a new report released last week by the group Austin Public Safety Solutions saying nearly 10,000 people a year are put into the Travis County jail for misdemeanors like driving without a license or criminal mischief when they could just get a ticket under a new state law.

"It would add a relief, a big relief to immigrant families that fear deportation," said Cristina Tzintzun of the Worker's Defense Project.

Critics said the option would make it easier for immigrants to stay in the country illegally.

Meanwhile ICE said it still has a job to complete.

"We're not about numbers, we're about enforcing immigration law," said Adrian Ramirez, a San-Antonio based assistant field director for ICE's detention and removal division.

Ramirez reiterated he's hoping for funding to put ICE agents in the Travis County jail 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While Ramirez said he could not provide specific numbers of immigrants arrested at the Travis County Jail, an agency spokeswoman said ICE made 9,180 arrests due to increased efforts under the "Criminal Alien Program" for the San Antonio Field Office, which covers 54 counties in Texas.

She said their main points of enforcement under the CAP program are Travis and Bexar counties.

ICE officials said a "citation option" would possibly help more immigrant families make plans before deportation.

But they're not concerned about losing any illegal immigrants.

"I don't know if our numbers will go down. But again, when people bring up that subject if they go to that, if they go to citing people that doesn't affect our operation at all," Ramirez said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo is also looking into the idea of the "citation option" here in Travis County.

But he's still waiting for more community meetings in September to see if the community supports changing the department's policy.

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