A version of this story ran in the April 2014 issue.
Above: Janet Murguía
Comprehensive immigration reform is dead, for now at least. In February, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner signaled that House Republicans are unlikely to let immigration reform advance, underscoring again that the anti-amnesty caucus maintains its grip on the GOP. It’s a disappointing turn in the long push by undocumented families and their advocates to bring some sanity and fairness to the nation’s immigration laws.
But in the grand tradition of “Don’t mourn, organize!” some activists are turning their focus from the mess in Washington, D.C., to a deportation crisis back home. Immigration activists are urging local officials to end participation in the federal Secure Communities program, which turns local jails into deportation hubs for federal officials. The country’s largest Latino advocacy group is also attacking President Obama for presiding over the most deportations of any U.S. president.
“For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief,” Murguía said. It was a critical remark uncharacteristic of Murguía and the National Council of La Raza, which many activists consider a group of Washington insiders uncomfortable with calling out Democrats for broken promises.
In her March speech, however, Murguía acknowledged that even if Obama used an executive order to end unnecessary deportations, it would be only a temporary fix. “We do a grave disservice to our community and to ourselves if we focus on only one front in this battle,” she said. “Only Congress can deliver a broad, inclusive and lasting solution. So, to the House of Representatives, we say take up reform now, or suffer the political consequences.”
Still, activists aren’t content to wait for the House to have a come-to-Jesús moment. Many are focusing their efforts on local power brokers. In Travis County, ranked 11th nationally and second in the state for deportations, immigrants are deported at a rate of 19 per week. The majority were arrested for misdemeanors, according to recent data from TRAC, a project of Syracuse University.
The high rate of deportations is the work of the Secure Communities program, which requires county jails to send fingerprints of people in custody to federal authorities. If an individual is in the country without authorization, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests that local officials hold the person, at a cost of $105.10 a day in Travis County, to give ICE enough time to seize and deport the prisoner. The program was intended to deport dangerous criminals, but in practice many of the deportees have committed only misdemeanors. The result is that immigrants can be ripped from their families for an offense as minor as a busted taillight. And many are. A 2012 report by the Austin American-Statesman found that for every felon deported from Travis County between 2008 and 2011, two misdemeanor offenders were deported.
In addition to the toll on families, the financial toll on taxpayers is significant. Reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards show that Travis County spent almost $26 million between October 2011 and January 2014 housing undocumented immigrants for the feds. Yet, on average, ICE reimburses just 18 percent of the costs.
The Democratic nominee for Travis County Judge, Sarah Eckhardt, promises, if elected in November, to try to end the county’s participation in the Secure Communities program by withholding funds for it.
Meanwhile, activists have been pressuring Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton to cease participation in Secure Communities. But activists are also lobbying officials with the city of Austin over the city’s agreement with Travis County to house Austin Police Department arrests, says Bob Libal, executive director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, an anti-private-prisons organization. With 70 percent of inmates in Travis County Jail coming from Austin police bookings, the city has the financial influence to sway county officials.
It’s a shame that the federal government asks local jurisdictions to shoulder the cost of Secure Communities, and activists should keep the pressure on. No one wins when we’re paying millions of dollars to tear families apart.