"We are presenting a letter today to the Travis County Jail signed by a broad base of community organizations, churches and immigration organizations to let them know there is large support for this cause" ... said [Cristina Tzintzun, a representative for the Workers Defense Project, an immigrant workers' rights organization].Whatever the merits of the Sheriff's new policy, the debate has become confused by the department's refusal to admit they've significantly changed it, which I think is a major public relations mistake. Roger Wade's statement simply misrepresents the facts, which makes it increasingly difficult for the Sheriff's critics to believe the department is acting in good faith.
Many of the protesters spoke of the importance of cooperation between local law enforcement and the immigrant population.
"A number of people have had their homes broken into, but they don't report it because of their legal status, and that causes a threat to all of us," said Rev. John Korcsmar of the Dolores Catholic Church.
Though many protesters are worried about the inability of immigrant families to report crimes or domestic violence to local authorities, ICE officials say their programs are designed to keep communities safe.
"Many of the victims of criminal aliens are illegal aliens themselves," said ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok. "One of our highest priorities is to target aliens with criminal convictions who target those in their community."
Rusnok said the agency has many programs that partner with local law enforcement to combat crime.
However, fear of imprisonment and deportation deters many victimized immigrants, including victims of domestic violence, from cooperating with local police, Tzintzun said.
Roger Wade, a spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff's Office, said the expanded collaboration with ICE is not a new program. Though he said he could not comment on specific arguments from the protest, Wade said the organization has been working in the Travis County Jail for the past 28 years to check on inmates who are illegal immigrants.
"We will continue to work with all federal, state and local law enforcement agencies," Wade said.
As I've written before, the feds have "holds" on literally twenty times the number of inmates at the Travis jail compared to before the new policy, which allows ICE to identify suspected illegal immigrants upon arrest instead of upon conviction. According to Austin city councilmember Mike Martinez, "Prior to the change there were only a handful of cases per month resulting in detainments (4 to 5). That number has now risen to approximately 111 for December and over 110 for the first 2 weeks of February alone." These are OPTIONAL inmates, extra prisoners taking up jail space because of a political decision by an elected official, and for no other reason.
The Travis County Jail already is at risk of noncompliance with state regulators. I don't understand Sheriff Hamilton's motivation for sticking to his guns so stridently on this. Maybe it brings in a few extra dollars from the feds, but the soured community relations, not to mention headaches from piling scores of optional inmates into an overcrowded jail, seem to me to outweigh a little extra cash on the side.
Perhaps Sheriff Hamilton would be less gung ho for this strategy if Travis County Commissioners simply designated all proceeds from the ICE contract to roads or parks. Then, absent a false financial incentive, the Sheriff could get back to focusing on how to reduce needless jail overcrowding, rather than exacerbate it.