Sheriff defends allowing immigration officials to have office at jail
At public hearing, many in audience, one commissioner fear Hamilton pulling county into enforcement debate.
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By Marty Toohey
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton encountered sharp criticism and a smattering of support Tuesday for his decision to allow federal immigration agents to establish an office at the Travis County Jail.
At two public forums, Hamilton defended the decision, saying the sheriff's office is simply allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use a side office in a jail in which its agents have been working for 30 years. He denied the charge that the sheriff's office is enforcing federal immigration law or facilitating racial profiling.
"I take offense to (critics) saying we're racial profiling," Hamilton said. "This is a public safety issue."
The immigration agency can detain people who have been arrested if it suspects that they are illegal immigrants, and the agency wants to have someone at the jail performing that vetting around the clock. The agency plans to add agents in Austin, and Hamilton said there was no harm in letting them use an office.
At the forums, some audience members disagreed.
"I think there's a great deal of naiveté in that statement," immigration attorney Malcolm Greenstein said at a night forumarranged to express community outrage. "It's a difference between an arm's-length relationship and embracing."
Among the concerns were questions of who would be detained — particularly if Hispanics would be the only ones — and whether people who would otherwise be let out were going to be kept behind bars while immigration agents vet them.
The main concern was that Hispanics could stop reporting crimes to the sheriff's office because of fears that deputies could begin arresting people accused of being in the country illegally.
"This undoes years of work by many people," said Joe Lopez, a member of Austin Interfaith.
About 120 people attended the night forum, including immigration attorneys and TV crews, but not officials from the immigration agency.
At a public hearing held earlier in the day by the county commissioners, some audience members said Hamilton was doing the right thing and should cooperate with federal officials.
"In many cases, these individuals (who are arrested) get a free pass to live here in our generous community and then commit crimes," audience member Brent Munhofen said.
That meeting was also heated at times.
When one audience member told the commissioners he was once a migrant worker, another audience member said loudly, "You're an illegal."
A third audience member said that was an unfair assumption and offered to settle the disagreement "outside on the street."
Commissioner Margaret Gómez chastised Hamilton for "getting defensive" and for not conferring with the commissioners before making a decision, later saying that Hamilton was creeping toward enforcing immigration law. The sheriff's office has a long-standing policy of not enforcing immigration law.
"I happen to think that no person from Earth is illegal," Gómez added.
Hamilton said Gómez was mischaracterizing the arrangement — "I don't know what part of the conversation you didn't hear" — and accused her of politicizing a law-enforcement issue.
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