Austin American Statesman by Dave Harmon
While federal policy focuses on serious offenders, data show hundreds flagged for deportation for minor infractions
Despite repeated statements from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that its main deportation targets are undocumented immigrants considered threats to the public or national security, more than 1,000 people have been flagged for deportation in Travis County in the past three years after arrests for minor infractions such as traffic tickets or public intoxication, an American-Statesman analysis has found.
Meanwhile, ICE data show that the Travis County Jail has become one of the busiest — and most efficient — deportation hubs in the country since federal immigration agents boosted their presence in the jail about four years ago and later began using a controversial program known as Secure Communities to check the immigration status of everyone booked into the jail.
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ICE says it has the money and manpower to deport about 400,000 people a year, so it has put the emphasis on serious felons, repeat offenders, gang members and other public threats, and instructed its employees last year to use more discretion in deciding who to flag for deportation.
And yet in Travis County, twice as many people have been deported after a misdemeanor arrest in recent years than have been deported after a felony arrest, according to an American-Statesman analysis of ICE and Travis County Jail data.
ICE data don't reveal how many people flagged for a minor offense in Travis County also fell under one of the agency's other priorities: recent border crossers and repeat immigration law violators, people who failed to appear at an immigration hearing and those who ignored a court order to leave the country. ICE records show that more than 500 people deported from Travis County since Secure Communities was launched here fell under one of those categories. It's unclear why they were jailed in the first place.
It's also unclear how many of those arrested for low-level misdemeanors might have had previous criminal records because jail booking records don't reveal that information.
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The newspaper analyzed ICE's data, then obtained three years' worth of records from the jail — totaling more than 250,000 bookings between 2009 and 2011 — and found that:
■ For every undocumented immigrant deported from Travis County after being arrested for a serious felony, two people were deported after being arrested for some type of misdemeanor, from traffic violations to more serious offenses, such as assault or drunk driving.
■ The more than 10,000 people who received ICE detainers — the first step toward possible deportation — over the three-year period included 1,054 people charged only with Class C misdemeanors, which are punishable by fines only.
■ Nearly 90 percent of those Class C charges were for public intoxication and traffic violations. It's not clear how many of those people were ultimately deported.
■ The number of detainers filed on people charged with Class C misdemeanors has been dropping over the past two years, from an average of 46 a month in the first half of 2010 to an average of 23 a month in the last half of 2011. Since ICE Director John Morton's memo last June instructing employees to use greater discretion, ICE agents have filed about 150 detainers on Class C offenders.