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The 'Sanctuary' Debate Revolves Around ICE Detainer Requests, But What Are They?

Martin do Nascimento
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez sparked controversy with a new policy stating that her office would honor ICE detainer requests only in cases of suspected murder, human trafficking or aggravated sexual assault.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives today will consider Senate Bill 4, popularly known as the “sanctuary cities” bill. The bill would create criminal and civil penalties for law enforcement officials who do not honor all requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspected undocumented immigrants.

But how does an ICE detainer request work?

From arrest to ICE contact

After a person is arrested in Travis County, he or she is booked into the local jail. That’s when the sheriff’s office communicates with the federal government, including ICE.

“When they’re taken to the Travis County jail, they come through Central Booking, and in Central Booking we fingerprint that individual,” said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. “And that is where it is determined whether or not a person might be in the country illegally.”

Fingerprints taken are routed through the Texas Department of Public Safety and to several federal databases, including one for ICE. If the person’s biometrics or name indicates that the person might be an undocumented immigrant, ICE will issue a detainer request – a written request to hold that person beyond the usual time he or she would be held until a federal agent can pick the person up.

“This is a request, essentially, that that person be held so that ICE can come to the jail and pick them up and then put them into detention or, at the very least, into removal proceedings,” said Justin Estep, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

ICE detainer comes down

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced a policy, effective Feb. 1, to honor ICE detainer requests only if someone has been charged with murder, human trafficking or aggravated sexual assault.

American Gateways Deputy Director Edna Yang reiterated that ICE detainer requests are just that – requests.

“Compliance is completely voluntary,” Yang said. “A law enforcement agency has the discretion to decide what kind of detainer they want to honor and under what circumstances they want to honor that detainer.”

When Travis County does honor detainer requests, the person isn't necessarily taken immediately into ICE custody.

“They will have to face the American justice system before they go through ICE,” Estep said. “ICE is not going to just say, ‘Oh you murdered someone and then all we’re going to do is deport you from the country.’ They will have to go through whatever system they’re in ... serve their time and then at that point they’d be immediately removed.”

In a sense, a detainer may be left pending until that person is released from custody – be it in a few days or after serving a five-year prison sentence.

So does this make Travis County a "sanctuary city?"

On Tuesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get some clarity on the federal definition of “sanctuary city.” Sessions said such jurisdictions defy a federal code mandating the sharing of certain information by local law enforcement with ICE. Travis County claims it is not violating that code.

"I specifically asked the question, 'Would a city that was not honoring voluntary detainers be a city that was sanctionable under the president's order directed at sanctuary cities?'" Adler told KUT's Nathan Bernier. "And I was told no."

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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