Awaiting the New Rules at TCSO

S-Comm changes still to come from DOJ


Sherriff Greg Hamilton

The Travis County Sheriff's Office – along with other authorities nationwide currently enforcing the federal "Secure Communities" initiative at the behest of Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement officials – won't know for another few weeks about protocol changes for handling undocumented immigrants in the wake of a recent presidential order.

On Nov. 20, President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in the way immigration eligibilities are processed – modifications that reorder U.S. Department of Justice priorities – that have halted the immediate deportation of some 5 million immigrants, among them 4.4 million parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders (permanent residents). As part of that revamping, the S-Comm program is to be replaced with a different program, dubbed the "Priority Enforcement Program."

Asked how the changes might affect local enforcement, TCSO Senior Public Information Officer Roger Wade said the office is still awaiting instructions from the Department of Homeland Security – which oversees ICE – on how to proceed at the local level in dealing with detainees found to be undocumented. "Your question concerning the executive order passed down by the president to end S-Comm and replace it with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) is interesting," Wade wrote in a Dec. 15 email. "We have said from the very beginning that the Travis County Sheriff's Office is not involved in the immigration process so we have no say concerning how the program will work or how it is implemented," he continued, referring any questions to the federal authorities.

In a widely distributed memorandum, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson detailed the rationale for ending S-Comm, including the distrust and fear of law enforcement officials the program engenders within minority communities. Released the same day as Obama's announcement, the memo outlined the focus of the new PEP program. "The goal of Secure Communities was to more effectively identify and facilitate the removal of criminal aliens in the custody of state and local law enforcement agencies," Johnson wrote. "But the reality is, the program has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood and is embroiled in litigation; its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws."

Johnson noted that a growing list of "governors, mayors, state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program, and many have issued executive orders or signed laws prohibiting such cooperation."

Not so in Travis County, which has been one of the nation's most aggressive S-Comm practitioners – since its 2009 local implementation, the program has resulted in the deportation of roughly 5,000 county residents. Immigration advocates have long decried the program, particularly its use of "detainers" of undocumented immigrants who are then held for up to 48 hours – longer on a weekend or holiday – until an ICE agent is able to travel from San Antonio or elsewhere to process the arrestee for deportation. More often than not, undocumented arrestees are detained for misdemeanors that would not usually call for deportation, were it not for local S-Comm enforcement. Invariably, the sheriff's office responds to questions about the practice by reiterating that the TCSO is not a subsidiary agency of ICE.

Reminded that by virtue of its aggressive S-Comm enforcement, the sheriff's office has in fact become part of that immigration process – effectively a gateway for locally originated deportations – Wade responded, "The fact remains, our office will continue to work with all law enforcement agencies and we do not know what PEP will bring until we are asked by DHS and ICE for assistance." (For the record, at press time, ICE hadn't responded to questions from the Chronicle.)

There are changes in progess relating to the county's population of undocumented immigrants – people building Austin's skyline, serving meals at restaurants, cleaning city offices at workdays' end, caring for children as nannies, tidying up private homes, building municipal streets and highways. Eventually, even the TCSO will have to acknowledge the changes.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 2, 2015 with the headline: Waiting for PEP