ICE will probably conduct more home raids in Austin

Rumors are swirling that ICE is conducting more home raids than usual in Austin this weekend. The rumors have not yet been substantiated, but the reality is that street-level immigration enforcement is bound to rise in Austin, even more than other places, because ICE no longer has free reign to pluck people out of the Travis County jail without a warrant.

A few news outlets have covered it. KXAN credulously relies on a former DHS prosecutor to call the raids “highly unlikely.” The Austin Chronicle mostly shows the position of the immigrant support groups, which is that whether the enforcement is happening or not, we must be ready to defend our communities from ICE.

The Travis County Sheriff implemented a new policy on February 1, 2017 that her jail would no longer hold prisoners for ICE based on a simple request, called an immigration detainer. These requests are made by serving the local jailer with form I-247, which asks the jailer to hold a prisoner “up to 48 hours” based on as little as an ICE officer’s “reason to believe the individual is an alien subject to removal from the United States.”

The new policy is a result of Democratic Sheriff Sally Hernandez campaigning and winning on a platform of no longer honoring ICE requests. Although this is being treated as scandalous by Republican politicians, the new sheriff is simply following the law. In federal district courts across the country, judges have consistently held that ICE must produce warrants to hold prisoners past their release date. Local jailers that hold prisoners for ICE based only a request are violating the constitution and are liable for damages.

ICE may not be able to produce warrants in Travis County in the same mass volume as they can make requests. If a person is released from the jail that ICE wants but was not able to get a warrant for, they will instead have to go pick up a person at home or work. ICE will be able to do this since they have practically unlimited resources and because immigration agents have broader power to make street arrests than a local sheriff has to hold someone without a warrant.

This is probably why rumors are swirling. Perhaps it is the case that several people were picked up at home and people began talking in their communities about it, even though firsthand accounts of street enforcement have yet surfaced. ICE, for its part, has likely tried to foment fear as retaliation.

We won’t know for sure what’s happening until removal cases get filed, the people charged get legal help, and their lawyers figure out how their clients were detained. Even then, there is only a limited right to discovery in immigration cases, and freedom of information requests are treated with great hostility by DHS. The details will come, but nationwide ICE will gradually lose its ability to rely on local officials to violate the law for them.

Getting ICE out of jails is a major victory for immigrant rights. The next steps are to file lawsuits against jurisdictions that still honor immigration detainers, like Harris County, where newly elected Democratic Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has continued the cooperation with ICE established by his Republican predecessors.

Beyond that, after we get ICE out of the jails we must get them out of the streets by eliminating the broad enforcement power given to them by federal law.