Travis County Leads Nation in Deporting 'Noncriminal' Immigrants (American Statesman)

Travis County leads nation in deporting ‘noncriminal’ immigrants, groups find

Sheriff said he questions findings but will look into whether conclusions drawn from compiled data are accurate.
By Tony Plohetski
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Updated: 12:39 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010

Published: 10:35 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

Undocumented immigrants with no criminal histories are being deported from Travis County at a higher percentage than any other county in the United States, according to government statistics obtained and analyzed by several advocacy groups.

According to the groups, 82 percent of deportations of jail inmates through a federal fingerprint-sharing program in Travis County were of “noncriminals,” such as those with no violent histories.

The statistics were compiled by officials for national advocacy groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, which obtained raw data through a federal freedom of information request to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, alerted to the statistics Tuesday, said he questions what the numbers show.

“We are going to have to do some looking into this,” Hamilton said. “I think those numbers are skewed, but we will find out.”

The expulsions have happened in recent months as federal agents nationally began reviewing fingerprints of inmates booked into county jails through a database-sharing program called Secure Communities. Federal officials have said the program helps identify and prioritize criminal immigrants who threaten public safety.

However, immigration advocates said the number of deportations of Travis County inmates highlights a problem with the program: People with no criminal histories are being removed.

“Secure Communities is marketed as a program that has as its mission targeting the worst of the worst – the most dangerous criminals most likely to present a danger to their communities,” said Bridget Kessler , clinical teaching fellow at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York , who was involved in the effort to compile the numbers. “So 82 percent doesn’t seem to represent the mission of the program at all.”

Critics said the program is similar to the Arizona law that makes local police and sheriffs central to enforcing immigration laws.

Federal officials said Tuesday that Secure Communities is in place in all 25 counties along the U.S.-Mexico border; the Obama administration wants it operational nationally by 2013.

According to statistics from October 2008 through June of this year, 46,929 people identified through Secure Communities were removed from the country. Of those, 12,293 were considered noncriminals.

California had the highest percentage of immigrants deported who had carried out serious crimes. In Georgia, 39 percent of 624 immigrants removed were noncriminals, the highest among all states, statistics showed.

Travis County led all counties with the highest percentage of deported noncriminals, the advocacy groups reported.

Sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade said the department has a policy of not talking to inmates, suspects or crime victims about their immigration status. He said if inmates are targeted by federal officials because of immigration, officials release them to various agencies, including ICE, when they are ordered by a judge.

On Tuesday, several Austin immigration advocates said they were not surprised by the Travis County statistics.

Thomas Esparza Jr., an Austin immigration lawyer who opposes the program, said, “What we told the county commissioners is that this was going to sweep the wheat up with the chaff, and that’s obviously what’s happened here. They’re very efficient here in Travis County. Everybody gets a hold put on them.”

Nicole True, an Austin criminal defense and immigration attorney, said the program unfairly targets immigrants accused of minor, nonviolent offenses and makes Austin immigrants less likely to report crimes.

“It would make more sense if immigration (enforcement) focused on violent felonies … where most people in the community would agree that that’s a dangerous person,” True said. The program “breaks apart a lot of families and creates a lot of fear.”

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Additional material from staff writer Jeremy Schwartz and The Associated Pres