Politics and Governance

Undocumented Immigrants: Supporting or Threatening Public Safety?

Austin’s Chief of Police, Art Acevedo, has made the following statement about undocumented immigrants: “The vast majority of these people are not criminal aliens, they’re economic aliens. They are not a threat to our public safety.”

Chief Acevedo has a point. Over the past 15 years, the United States has experienced the largest wave of immigration, both authorized and undocumented, in our history. During this same period, crime rates have declined. Violent crime has decreased by 34%, and property crimes have fallen by 26%. There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., yet crime rates are diminishing.

Seen in this light, the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) in the Travis County jail is a misguided policy. Promoted as an initiative to deport dangerous criminals, CAP is a voluntary agreement between local law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. CAP is designed to boost collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement, and moves individuals from incarceration to deportation proceedings. Under CAP, ICE agents visit local jails and check the immigration status of foreign-born inmates. An ICE “detainer” is issued to undocumented immigrants as well as lawful permanent residents convicted of a removable defense as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Immigrants that come into custody under CAP can be deported even if the charges are dismissed. If convicted, immigrants can be deported once they’ve served their sentences.

Travis County has participated in CAP since 1999, when the County Commissioners entered an agreement with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to advise INS of foreign nationals in law enforcement custody. The situation escalated in January 2008, when Sheriff Greg Hamilton announced his decision to provide office space to ICE agents in the Travis County Jail. This decision is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is Travis County’s participation in CAP.

Since Sheriff Hamilton announced his decision to initiate a closer relationship with ICE, the number of detainers placed on undocumented immigrants has surged. In 2006, 533 total ICE detainers were issued. In 2007, total ICE detainers increased to 944. In the first quarter of 2008, 772 ICE detainers were issued—nearly a 400% increase over the same period in the previous year.

Sheriff Hamilton insists that CAP targets “the worst of the worst,” but do these detainees represent a threat to public safety? The data also show that an increasing proportion of ICE detainers have been placed on individuals whose most serious charge was a Class C misdemeanor—the least serious offense on the books. In the first quarter of 2008, 9.3% of ICE detainers stemmed from Class C misdemeanor charges.

When even a Class C misdemeanor arrest can mean possible deportation, it should be no surprise that the immigrant community would want to avoid contact with the police. Immigrants express reluctance to report crimes for fear of interacting with law enforcement. Recently a mother was afraid to call the police to report that her teenage daughter was sexually assaulted and nearly raped by a group of young men. Women who experience domestic violence will be rendered more vulnerable than ever if they are afraid to call local law enforcement for help. If crime victims and witnesses do not report crimes because of CAP, the policy will effectively create a sanctuary for serious criminals to operate with impunity. Travis County will become a more dangerous place to live and a harder place to ensure public safety.

Policies like CAP force immigrants into the shadows of society. Undocumented immigrants do not exist in isolation; they have loved ones who are authorized immigrants or U.S. citizens. Local law enforcement agencies face a daunting task, and understand the value of working with communities to build trust. Savvy law enforcement agents realize that everyone in their jurisdiction—citizens, tourists, authorized immigrants and undocumented immigrants—are potential witnesses to crimes and can provide assistance with investigations.

Law enforcement resources in Texas are stretched thin. Our jails are crowded. While purporting to make Texans safer, CAP has eroded the immigrant community’s trust in local law enforcement. That trust takes years to build, and moments to destroy. Sheriff Hamilton needs to recognize that the safety of everyone in Travis County is at stake. He should respond by withdrawing from CAP and rebuilding trust with the immigrant community.

Laura Martin

Laura Martin is master’s candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She works at Casa Marianella, volunteers with Proyecto Defensa Laboral, and sits on the steering committee of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition. To learn more about the effort to get ICE out of the county jail, please visit


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