Immigration central issue in Democratic primary for Travis sheriff
Updated: 3:15 p.m. Friday, May 18, 2012
Published: 10:41 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, 2012
As he seeks a third term as Travis County sheriff, Greg Hamilton would prefer the race be about issues like putting more deputies on the streets and ways to improve mental health resources for people booked into the county jail.
But after criticism from Hamilton’s opponent in the Democratic primary, John Sisson, the focus has shifted almost entirely to one issue: immigration. More specifically, how the sheriff’s office deals with requests from the federal government to hold suspects with questionable immigration statuses for possible deportation.
Sisson has emerged as a critic of the way the Travis County Jail handles Secure Communities, a program that helps the federal government identify potential deportation targets by comparing fingerprints against immigration databases after they are booked.
At the center of the dispute over Secure Communities are two interpretations of the federal law behind it.
Hamilton points to the part of the law that says if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement determines that a suspect should be removed from the country, “such agency shall maintain custody of the alien” for up to 48 hours until immigration officials can take the suspect into custody.
“When you work in law enforcement, you know the difference between ‘shall’ and ‘may,’ ” said Hamilton, who was first elected to the post in 2004. “The law is the law. There are no court cases to say otherwise.”
As such, Travis County Jail officials honor every request from the federal government to detain a suspect for immigration reasons, which could lead to their deportation. Hamilton says jails are mandated by the federal government to participate in the program.
Sisson, however, cites the part of the same federal law that describes an immigration detainer as a “request,” not an order.
Sisson argues that the county’s practice of placing a hold or “detainer” on every suspect with immigration status issues — including those booked for minor offenses — is excessive and inhumane.
He said that if he is elected sheriff, he will place detainers only on suspects accused of violent or drug-related crimes, and that there is no penalty from the federal government for doing so.
“Secure Communities, I believe in,” said Sisson, a retired Austin Police Department lieutenant and current Travis County deputy constable. However, he said he does not support the way Hamilton has made use of the program.
Sisson said it has led to a record number of deportations from Travis County and has sparked mistrust between law enforcement officials and the Hispanic community.
“It’s inhumane,” Sisson said. “No one should walk around Austin and Travis County in fear. (Hamilton) has instilled fear in the immigrant population.”
‘But it is the law’
Hamilton said that even if he had the power to choose which inmates should be flagged for possible deportation, he has no way of knowing whether the ones who are released won’t go out into the community and commit violent crimes.
“How do you know they aren’t violent? Either you detain all of them or none of them,” Hamilton said. “I’m not going to play God.”
At a question-and-answer session held by the Circle C Area Democrats on Monday night, most questions were directed to Hamilton, and nearly all were about immigration.
“Why do you persist in unlawfully detaining thousands of immigrants?” asked Silvia Reveles-Scheller, the former state director of the Texas Immigration and Refugee Coalition.
Hamilton replied that he is following the law by honoring detention requests, but another voter, Michael Walters, pressed him on what his policy would be if he could choose whom to detain for immigration reasons. Hamilton again said he’s doing what the law tells him.
“What if it wasn’t the law?” Walters asked.
“But it is the law,” Hamilton said.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, filed April 30, Hamilton has raised more than twice as much as Sisson. The sheriff reported $20,200 from contributors, to Sisson’s $8,926.
Hamilton, the county’s first black sheriff, worked in the county jail and as a deputy sheriff before taking over the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s enforcement division in 1994.
Hamilton claims several successes over his past two terms. He said he has improved relations between the office’s administration and the deputies’ unions, which have endorsed him for re-election. He also said he has improved working conditions for deputies, instituted successful services such as education programs for jail inmates, added a range for firearm training, and created a garden at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, tended by inmates, that supplies food to the facility.
Hamilton said that if he is re-elected, he wants to focus on adding deputies to deal with Travis County’s and Austin’s explosive population growth.
“We have made great strides in the last eight years,” Hamilton said. “I believe we are one of the most progressive law enforcement agencies in the county.”
Sisson joined the Austin Police Department in 1978 and worked there for more than 30 years. He worked on patrol and in narcotics, in property crimes and on the SWAT team, he said. After retiring in 2009, he went to work for Travis County Constable Precinct 3, and he is a member of a team that investigates vehicle inspection fraud.
He said that if he is elected, he wants to diversify the upper ranks at the sheriff’s office and use money spent on holding immigrants on detainers to hire doctors and nurses to improve mental health resources at the jail.
About a year ago, Sisson said, he was tapped to run for sheriff by several constable deputies who said Hamilton has tried to marginalize their offices, as well as activists upset about Secure Communities.
Former Travis County Sheriff Raymond Frank is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
In March, the American-Statesman investigated Travis County’s participation in Secure Communities, finding that more than 1,000 people have been flagged for possible deportation in the county in the past three years after arrests for minor infractions such as traffic tickets or public intoxication. Since Secure Communities was begun in Travis County in June 2009, more than 500 people have been deported.
Twice as many people in the county have been deported after a misdemeanor arrest as after a felony arrest, according to an American-Statesman analysis of ICE and Travis County Jail data.
In addition, of the 56 U.S. counties with at least 500 deportations through Secure Communities, Travis County ranks third with a 41 percent deportation rate. The reason for Travis County’s high rate of deportations is unclear — at the Monday Q&A, Hamilton said he did not know why it was the case.
“We’ve become the deportation hub of the United States,” Sisson said.
Many attorneys and groups who advocate immigration reform say it is not mandatory for a jail to honor the federal government’s detainer requests.
“There’s nothing in the ICE detainers that say they are mandatory,” said Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor who co-directs the school’s immigration clinic. “There is no penalty (if they are ignored), and in fact, it is an unfunded mandate.”
When asked whether it is mandatory for law enforcement agencies to honor detainers, ICE officials released a statement saying they anticipate that those agencies “will comply with the detainer though ICE has not sought to compel compliance through legal proceedings. Jurisdictions that ignore detainers bear the risk of possible public safety risks.”
The Associated Press reported in February 2011 that President Barack Obama’s administration pitched Secure Communities participation to some communities as voluntary until some refused to participate. Then the federal government made it mandatory. ICE officials are seeking to implement the program nationwide by the end of 2013.
A number of states and cities have attempted to opt out. Last year, governors in Illinois and New York said they would not participate. But despite criticism from elected officials there, Secure Communities went into effect across the state of New York this week.
Last year, elected officials in Santa Clara, Calif., voted that they would honor immigration detainers only if the case involved a serious felon. But as Hamilton points out on the campaign tail, the Santa Clara County supervisors were criticized by their district attorney and sheriff over the move, saying it took away deputies’ latitude on how to handle cases.
Contact Patrick George at 445-3548
Additional material from the Associated Press