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Report: Travis County released dozens of undocumented inmates wanted by feds

Travis County officials declined dozens of requests from federal immigration agents to hold inmates in the days leading up to the county's recent showdown with Gov. Greg Abbott over its new "sanctuary" policy.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

The White House’s first-ever report on local governments that don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents shows Travis County officials declined dozens of requests to hold inmates in the days leading up to the county's recent showdown with Gov. Greg Abbott

Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, Travis County sheriff deputies declined more than 140 requests – known as detainers – from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to hand over undocumented immigrants for possible deportation, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Travis County was far and away the Texas leader in declining ICE detainers, according to the report, which mentioned only two other Texas counties. Williamson County declined four recent detainers and Bastrop County declined three.

Last month, Abbott pulled state grant funding for Travis County programs after Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, said after her 2016 election victory that she would only honor detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a limited basis.

The data comes as the Texas Legislature is currently debating Senate Bill 4, which would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions by withholding grant funding to them and making police chiefs, sheriffs, constables and other department heads subject to a class A misdemeanor – and potential removal from office — for violating the provisions of the bill.

The bill also would expand the immigration enforcement powers of local police officers and allow them to inquire about a person's immigration status during routine stops.

“Today’s report from DHS is deeply disturbing and highlights the urgent need for a statewide sanctuary city ban in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement. “The Travis County Sheriff’s decision to deny ICE detainer requests and release back into our communities criminals charged with heinous crimes – including sexual offenses against children, domestic violence and kidnapping – is dangerous and should be criminal in itself.”

The Texas Senate voted out SB 4 in February. In the House, some have called for the bill's scope to be reduced, arguing that most lawmakers agree that sheriffs and other law enforcement should comply with detainers from ICE.

The information reflects that detainers were declined on immigrants charged with a variety of crimes, including driving under the influence, drug possession, sexual assault, robbery and indecent exposure to a minor. Though all of the inmates were charged, the data indicates not all of the inmates were ultimately convicted. It also shows that, though the ICE detainers were issued at various times, including early and late 2016, all of the detainer requests were recorded declined on Feb. 1.

Calls to the Travis County Sheriff seeking clarification on the data were not immediately returned.

In a fact sheet sent by the DHS in connection with the detainer report, ICE explains that the data is based on information it compiles after a request is declined. It also includes information from entities that comply but may not have given immigration authorities “sufficient” evidence about an inmate’s potential release.

“Lack of sufficient advance notification is based on the judgment of immigration officers, taking into consideration geographic limitations, response times and other local logistical details,” the statement from ICE read.

The majority of the inmates listed on Monday’s report were from Mexico, although several were from Central America.

The report revealed that the amount of detainers declined by Travis County officials has skyrocketed since Hernandez took over as sheriff. According to a Tribune analysis of detainer data, Travis County declined 72 requests between January 2014 and September 2015.

ICE officials will continue to compile a detainers list and release it weekly as part of a requirement in President Trump’s January 25 executive order on immigration, a DHS spokesperson said in a news release.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, the Williamson County Sheriff's Department said the DHS report was misleading because the county honors all detainer requests.

"The individuals listed on the report were arrested in Williamson County and a detainer was placed on all four individuals," spokesperson Patricia Gutierrez wrote. "They were later transferred to different jurisdictions where we believe ICE detainers are not honored. At this moment we cannot confirm the jurisdictions to which they were transferred."

It's not the first time a jurisdiction has alleged ICE's data isn't completely accurate. In 2016, a Webb County Sheriff spokesperson told the Tribune that although ICE claimed that jail failed to honor three detainers, the inmates were instead transferred to other counties where they faced more charges.

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • Outnumbered and with time running out, Texas Democrats hoping tokill anti-"sanctuary" legislation are open to shining a spotlight on so-called "sanctuary industries" that often turn a blind eye toward hiring unauthorized labor.
  • A 2006 settlement between an El Paso County resident and his local sheriff's department could come back and haunt the border town if the Texas Legislature passes its anti-"sanctuary cities" bill. 
  • The Republican-controlled Texas Senate gave its final stamp of approval on Wednesday to a controversial bill that would gut funding from local and state entities that don’t enforce immigration laws.

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