At a public forum last week, Democratic candidates for Travis County Sheriff traded barbs over whether they would fully comply with a controversial federal immigrant detention program.
One candidate even invoked a conversation during the candidates’ endorsement interview with the Statesman’s editorial board, where the candidates were also asked what their position was on cooperating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in detaining immigrants, American-Statesman’s Nicole Barrios reported. Of the six candidates seeking to succeed Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, only one said he would keep the sheriff’s most controversial policy.
During the forum held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, former Austin police Lt. John Sisson, a Democratic candidate, told the audience that he’s been advocating to end Travis County’s participation in the ICE program since 2007, when he ran against Hamilton.
“I was sitting with the editorial board, and the question was, ‘Will you cooperate with immigration officials?’ Todd (Radford) and Sally (Hernandez) said yes, they would, except for minor violations; Don (Rios) and I said no,” Sisson said at the forum. “You cannot pick and choose who goes and who stays.”
Two things from Barrios’ story stood out to me: Hernandez taking offense to Sisson’s claim and Rios’ telling Saturday’s audience that the first goal of his campaign was to end ICE detainers.
So, I listened to my recording of the interview to see where Sisson’s memory (or notes) and mine didn’t match and to see if Rios made it clear to us his intention with ICE detainers.
To Sisson’s point, he and Rios were the only two candidates who stated that they would not comply with ICE at all, while Radford and Hernandez said they would draw a line in certain cases. But Rios never mentioned his position on ICE detainers until he was asked directly.
Yes, the topic of ICE came up several times, but it was during a specific portion of our hour-long conversation where each candidate gave details to their position on the issue. Sisson was the only candidate who made the issue part of his introduction.
Off the bat, answering a question of why he was running for the position, Sisson said: “What I want to do for Travis County is end our collaboration with immigration officials, I want to put body cameras on all deputies and consistent training, de-escalation training, sensitivity training cultural diversity training , mental health training.” No other candidate referenced ICE in their answer to the same question.
Later in our conversation, the candidates were asked to name three important planks of their criminal justice reform or platform. Rios was the only candidate who did not mention cooperation with ICE as a reform. The others mentioned cooperation to some degree in their platforms.
When editorial board member Alberta Phillips asked John Sisson to name any sheriffs in Texas who are not currently cooperating with ICE officials, Sisson pointed to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who as Sisson explained, is “cooperating somewhat, she’s just not holding (immigrants) for minor violations.” And when asked if he would cooperate at all, Sission responded, “No ma’am”.
Hernandez told us her platform would mirror Sheriff Valdez’s program in Dallas.
When asked the same question, Radford replied, “this broad brush stroke effect that we’re going to send everybody to ICE and cooperate in that fashion doesn’t make sense to me.”
Since Rios was the only candidate who had shared his views on cooperating with ICE, we him directly if he would. His answer: “ I would not cooperate at all.”
The candidates then were given the opportunity to explain their position on ICE detainers. Their responses included:
Radford: “The issue for me is [that] it’s not equitable. When we start to infringe upon issues of inequity, that’s when we have to take a stance. For me there are two issues: One, crossing: coming into our state which is an illegal act and federal illegal act. But the issue staying past, is more an administrative issue, more of a civil issue. ..if we have people in our facilities who have answered for our state issues and they’re ready to be released (but aren’t because of an ICE retainer), it would be very much akin to someone calling and saying the person violated the tenants of their contract I need you to hold them 28 more hours. I wouldn’t do that to anybody else nor should I be expected to do so with this one person just based on their immigrant status.”
Rios: “It’s not a criminal act it’s actually a civil violation of the immigration law. That’s what we’re talking about. We are also talking about people who have been arrested but not convicted of anything…We are talking about who are innocent. We are not talking about people who are guilty. Those people who are guilty will get deported.”
Rios continued: “When a judge has that affidavit, it is his or her responsibility to ensure the safety of our community and that particular bond setting of what they feel that crime…This comes truly down to a violation of the Fourth Amendment, for me. If ICE would have probable cause and get that reviewed by a judge, having judicial review, then we wouldn’t be talking about this issue.”
Hernandez said her choice of non-cooperating with ICE was about making everyone in the community feel safe, including the immigrant community. Sisson agreed with Rios’ response.
Sisson was correct to say that during our endorsement meeting he and Rios were the only candidates to take a firm stance against cooperating with ICE detainers, while Hernandez and Radford suggested they would cooperate with ICE in violent criminal cases. But it took reading Barrios’ story for me to understand that eliminating ICE from the Sheriff’s office was a priority for Rios.