Austin City Council Seeks to Further Limit City's Role in Secure Communities Program

Nov 7, 2014

The Austin City Council is taking steps to limit its role in Federal Secure Communities, a program that relies on partnerships among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to deport undocumented immigrants. The program has been criticized for detaining and deporting individuals charged with misdemeanors, rather than serious crimes.

On Thursday night, the council voted unanimously to instruct city staff to make amendments to a proposed interlocal agreement with Travis County. The new language would require the Travis County Sheriff's Office to only honor detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when there are judge-issued arrest warrants or probably cause of crime.

The amendments, proposed by Council Member Mike Martinez, were intended to “either minimize the impact of Secure Communities on Austin families, or increase transparency around the program” and its impact.

“When we’re talking about splitting families up for non-violent crimes, for things like driving without a license or driving with a taillight busted out, that’s where we have to draw the line,” Martinez says. “And stopping this policy that is unnecessarily tearing families apart and causing devastating effects.”

Martinez emphasized that, according to the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Third Circuit of Court of Appeals, compliance with detainer programs is not mandatory, but voluntary. Additionally, it’s costing taxpayers in Austin about $105 a day, due to the lack of reimbursement provided by ICE. The agreement would only affect prisoners brought into county jails by Austin City Police, which Martinez says accounts for three-fourths of all inmates.

Crystal Gomez, an attorney in Austin who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, said the local law enforcement agencies that detain individuals are violating the Fourth Amendment.

“These detainers don’t pass constitutional muster,” Gomez says. “The county seems really committed to trample on people’s constitutional rights, frankly.”

Silvia Suvieta, a high school student whose father was deported, also spoke. She says the program affects more than just the undocumented.

“When children are ripped away from their families, you go into a spiraling depression,” Suvieta says. “You think about whether or not you should continue, every single day.”

Both the Travis County Commissioners and Sheriff would have to sign off on any final changes to the agreement.