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Will Travis County Be Sued For Participating in ICE Immigration Holds?

Daniel Reese for KUT News
Numerous attorneys says Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton's participation in Immigration and Customs Enforcement's controversial Secure Communities program could lead to lawsuits.

Dozens of jurisdictions across the country have backed away from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation program known as Secure Communities.

But Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton is not backing away from the controversial program. And in response, a group of Austin attorneys announced Thursday they plan to start suing the county for its Secure Communities detentions.

As ICE writes, the program "prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators." But critics charge the program has been overused and resides on shaky legal ground. 

Barbara Hines, co-director of UT-Austin’s Immigration Clinic, is one of the dozens of attorneys who delivered a letter to Travis County Commissioners warning they may be sued for participating in Secure Communities.

"An ICE detainer is not a warrant, an ICE detainer is not an order from an immigration judge, it’s an administrative piece of paper,” Hines says. But those detainers keep people behind bars while authorities investigate their immigration status and launch deportation proceedings.

Denise Gilman, also with UT’s Immigration Clinic, says many of the detained have not committed any crimes. She says some have been detained "for offenses such as failing to pay a traffic ticket, or in one case, stepping off the sidewalk during South by Southwest – [and] ending up in detention and deportation proceedings."

With Pres. Obama recently softening his stance on deportations, Hines believes there is momentum to stop Secure Communities in Travis County. Sheriff Hamilton disagrees – his department, along with every other county in Texas is part of the Secure Communities program.

That may be costing Hamilton some political capital though: the Travis County Democratic Party recently passed two resolutions condemning participation in Secure Communities. "Travis County is among the nation’s leaders in deporting immigrants for non-criminal offenses, and that does not sit well with many in our progressive community," party communications director Joe Deshotel says in a statement.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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