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Photo: Charles Reed, HOGP
The incoming Travis County Sheriff in February denied at least 204 detention requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that dated back to 2016 and 2017. Those requests involved 58 people convicted of driving while intoxicated and 34 convicted of assorted acts of violence, including family violence and aggravated assault, according to public records released Wednesday by a Washington D.C. non-profit.
It remains unclear how many Travis County detainees have actually been freed under a controversial policy change enacted by Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who took office in late January.
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At least 37 of the 204 inmates whose waivers were denied back in February made bail, others were re-arrested, remain in custody or were turned over to ICE, said Kristen Dark, senior public information officer for the department. In several cases, ICE returned with warrants for the same inmates whose waivers were denied. Other inmates are serving time either in jail or in prison.
Copies of the 204 denied ICE requests were released Tuesday by the Washington DC-based non-profit Judicial Watch. The group obtained the documents from Travis County through a records request.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said the documents provide “disturbing evidence of how Travis County’s sanctuary policy protects criminal illegal aliens, many of whom are dangerous felons, from deportation.” He argued that “sanctuary policies such as these put the public’s safety at risk.”
Hernandez has defended her stance as one that supports the rights of immigrants and encourages them to report crimes and serve as witnesses without fear of deportation.
“I am following all state and federal laws, and upholding constitutional rights to due process for all in our criminal justice system,” Hernandez said in a prior statement. “Our community is safer when people can report crimes without fear of deportation. I trust the court system and our judges to assess the risks and set appropriate bonds and conditions for all who are incarcerated. The voters, who elected state leaders and me, expect and deserve a collaborative effort to come up with solutions to this very complex issue.”
President Donald Trump has more recently criticized Hernandez for continuing to decline more recent ICE detainer requests than other agencies nationwide in 2017, according to ICE’s own reports.
But since February, the number of ICE detainers refused by the department dropped, Dark said.From Feb. 5- March 18, 49 additional requests were declined, Dark said. Again, she emphasized, not all inmates were freed. She did not have a more recent total.
The newly-released records show that most of the 204 Travis County immigrants whose detainers were denied in February were pre-trial inmates who already had spent days or months in the county’s 2,500-inmate jail when Hernandez took office. Nearly all of the detainers she initially denied were issued under the administration of former President Barack Obama. The Obama administration’s deportation policy targeted DUI offenders as well as others convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude,” which include both felonies and misdemeanors.
Under her new policy, Hernandez has reduced cooperation with ICE agents’ requests to hold jail inmates who are immigrants for deportation for up to 48 hours after they would normally be released. The department still routinely honors requests for immigration detainers for inmates convicted of more serious violent crimes, such as capital murder and aggravated assault.
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But detainer requests are not automatically honored for immigrant inmates convicted of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor on first offense, or for a non-felony assault case, under the Travis County policy. Rather each ICE request for a detainer is evaluated separately and prior convictions and previous deportations also are considered, said Dark.
Hernandez’ pro-immigrant policy change also has been blasted by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has urged state lawmakers to cut off grant funding to her department. “Governor Abbott finds this report deeply disturbing, and it underscores the importance of banning this dangerous policy that puts the lives of innocent Texans at risk,” said John Wittman, the governor’s press secretary in response to the records released Wednesday.
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