AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas’ top politicians have led the fight against undocumented immigration — except in Travis County, home of Austin, which declined more immigration holds recently than any other county in the country, the Department of Homeland Security said Monday.
Counties in 16 states including Texas declined 206 detainer requests between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, according to the DHS’ Declined Detainer Outcome Report.
Travis County accounted for more than two-thirds of the refusals: 142 of them.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer hold asks local or state police agencies to keep in jail people who have been charged with state, until an ICE agent can pick them up for deportation.
The DHS report was required by President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order: “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”
The DHS report is supposed to inform the public of the safety threats from sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with federal immigration officers.
“When law enforcement agencies fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect the public safety and carry out its mission,” acting ICE director Thomas Homan said in a statement Monday.
Homan said ICE wants to build “cooperative” relationships with local law enforcement to “ensure that illegal aliens who may pose a threat to our communities are not released onto the streets to potentially harm individuals living within our communities.”
Critics have said that Trump’s policies are not aimed at dangerous people or criminals at all, but at anyone who happens to be undocumented, including law-abiding parents of U.S. citizen children, and young people in the country legally under the Obama-era DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or “Dreamers.”
Recent studies from institutes on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, however, indicate that increased immigration may have played a significant part in reduced crime rates in the United States. The right-leaning, Libertarian Cato Institute reported on March 15 that “all immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population.”
And the Sentencing Project, a more liberal group, reported on March 16 that the tripling of the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, from 3.5 million in 1990 to 11.1 million in 2014, may have contributed to “an historic drop” in rates of violent crime in those years, from 730 per 100,000 residents in 1991 to 362 per 100,000 in 2014.
Though the decrease of more than 50 percent “is not definitive in proving causation,” the Sentencing Project said, it concluded, as did the Cato Institute, that “foreign-born residents of the United States commit crime less often than native-born citizens.”
In Austin and Travis County, the rejections of detainer holds are a result of a sanctuary city policy enacted by newly elected Sheriff Sally Hernandez in January.
The county still accepts requests accompanied by a court order, and requests whose subjects have been charged or convicted of capital murder, first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.
A federal judge in Austin confirmed in open court Monday that federal agents conducted dozens of raids on undocumented immigrants in February, in “retribution” for Hernandez’s policy, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
The American-Statesman reported Monday that U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said in court: “We had a briefing … that we could expect a big operation, agents coming in from out of town, that it was going to be a specific operation, and at least it was related to us in that meeting that it was the result of the sheriff’s new policy that this was going to happen.
“My understanding, what was told to us, is that one of the reasons that happened was because the meetings that had occurred between the (ICE) field office director and the sheriff didn’t go very well.”
Governor Greg Abbott in February cut off $1.5 million in criminal justice grants to Travis County after Hernandez refused to capitulate to his demands that she reverse the sanctuary city policy. The grant money was for programs for veterans, children, women and families.
Abbott said Monday that the DHS detainer report was “deeply disturbing and highlights the urgent need for a statewide sanctuary city ban in Texas.”
Abbott is pushing legislation that would kill funding and fine any Texas jurisdiction that adopts a sanctuary city policy. Senate Bill 4 would subject local law enforcement officials to criminal misdemeanor charges if they refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“The Travis County Sheriff’s decision to deny ICE detainer requests and release back into our communities criminals charged with heinous crimes — including sexual offenses against children, domestic violence and kidnapping — is dangerous and should be criminal in itself,” Abbott said.
However, in the roundup of 51 people, which the American-Statesman called ICE “retribution” against Hernandez, ICE described 28 of the arrestees as “non-criminal,” a percentage “significantly higher” than in other cities where ICE conducted similar raids, including Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
According to the DHS report, in the week cited, Travis County refused detainer requests for 12 people charged or convicted of sex crimes, 18 people charged or convicted of domestic violence, and one person charged with kidnapping. Most of detainer refusals were for people charged or convicted of assault or driving under the influence.
The Travis County Sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement Monday that “questionable immigration status is not evidence in our state criminal justice system.”
“If the accused is undocumented, that is a federal issue, which ICE is free to pursue independently,” Eckhardt said.
She said a person suspected of rape, murder or any other serious crime would be brought to justice “irrespective of where the accused was born.”
Two counties that border Travis County were also listed in the declined detainer report.
Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook said the report contained “erroneous information” and that his county has never refused a detainer request. The three cases reported involved people arrested in Bastrop County, who were transferred to Travis County, according to the sheriff.
Cook said he has asked federal authorities to update their records.
The Williamson County sheriff’s office said the report is “misleading” and that it honors all ICE detainer requests.
Austin proudly sets itself politically from the rest of Texas, the city’s unofficial slogan being “Keep Austin Weird.”