Why Is ICE Arresting So Many People Without Criminal Records In Weird, Liberal Austin?


On the morning of February 9, Juan Martinez got into his car just outside his apartment and prepared to drop off his children at school before heading to his construction job. Then, before his kids came downstairs, immigration agents approached him and asked him for his papers. He’d feared this confrontation for years but managed to avoid it. He figured as long as he paid his taxes and was a good father he could remain under the radar.

His children watched in horror from their upstairs apartment window as their father was thrust to the ground, handcuffed, and eventually taken away to the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, a facility between two to three hours away depending on traffic. In a few moments, a life was shattered and a family of seven torn apart.

This happened not in a highly-patrolled border town, but in Austin—one of the most liberal cities in the country, proudly weird and a hotspot of progressive activism, a place where a sheriff has adopted sanctuary policies at her jail in defiance of the governor.

The Montopolis neighborhood, where Martinez and his family have lived for five years, is virtually untainted by the gentrification that has pushed many minorities out of East Austin. It remains just out of reach of the trendy restaurants, food trucks, and boutiques that began taking over in the early 2000s. The land is flat and fertile, and despite urban development, tall prairie grass still springs up, reminding residents and passersby of its rural past. Despite Austin’s penchant for tacos and margaritas, Montopolis, which the Austin Chronicle once called “poverty island,” is the last predominantly Hispanic community in Austin where most residents are blue-collar workers who speak Spanish at home.

Is there even such a thing as a “liberal oasis” when it comes to modern immigration policies in America?

Activists say feelings of comfort or cultural acceptance in Austin among the immigrant population have plummeted since U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arrested Juan Martinez and 50 other people in the Austin region during an operation in early February. The Austin American-Statesman reported that only 23 of February’s arrestees had previous convictions.

The arrests gave Austin the dubious honor of being the number one city in the country for undocumented immigrants without criminal records arrested during Operation Cross Check, which ICE has said is aimed at the most dangerous violent criminals. And many of the remaining 23 were convicted of non-violent crimes—like Martinez, who’d gotten a DUI six years ago.

President Donald Trump’s election has set off an immigration power struggle between federal, state, and city governments, all of whom have differing ideas about how deportations should be handled—and nowhere is that more apparent than in Texas. Some leaders have made moves to protect Austin’s undocumented population. Churches in the area have formed the Austin Sanctuary Network and have publicly spoken out against the deportations. Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who was elected to office the same day as Trump, made headlines when she professed a sanctuary policy for her jurisdiction that would provide some protections to undocumented immigrants. She announced she would closely review cases before honoring federal immigration official’s requests to hold inmates in her jails for them.

The announcement dovetailed with Trump’s own that he would seek to cut funding dollars from sanctuary cities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also cautioned cities that they could lose federal funding if they don’t comply with immigration authorities. This is already happening on the state level; Texas governor Greg Abbott cut off $1.5 million in state funding for Travis County over the policy, including from, in what some perceived as a spiteful move, social services like Veterans’ Court, Child Protective Services, and Juvenile Probation. (Democratic lawmakers said they would raise public funds to make up for the loss).

ICE officials called the arrests of people with no criminal records “collateral apprehensions,” but the Statesman reported in late March that U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin suggested they were “retaliation” ordered in response to Hernandez adopting the sanctuary policies in her jail. Hernandez, meanwhile, insists her office is in full compliance with ICE policy, claiming in a statement that it’s “in place to uphold our status as one of the safest counties in the nation as well as to reduce Travis County’s liability by requiring ICE to provide warrants rather than requests.”

All this political push-and-pull, which has existed for years but has intensified in the first months of Trump’s presidency, begs the question: Is there even such a thing as a “liberal oasis” when it comes to modern immigration policies in America?

Martinez’s longtime partner, Ana*, remembers the phone call that changed her life. It was 7 a.m. and the petite Mexican mother of five had just arrived at her food service job making salads when her cell phone rang. She heard her distraught partner on the other end.

“You have to come immediately,” Juan yelled. “Immigration agents just arrested me and I can’t take the kids to school.”

Ana could feel the palms of her hands get sweaty. She had just a few minutes to decide her next course of action. A flurry of thoughts of the worst kind consumed her.

She thought of her eldest daughter, Alba,* whom Ana brought to the U.S. when she was a toddler. Alba is two years away from graduating high school and is in the process of applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Ana also thought of herself—she, too, is undocumented.

The phone rang again. This time it was an immigration agent calling from Martinez’s cell phone.

“I’m sorry to inform you that your husband is detained,” she recalls him saying. “I’m going to ask you to come now and if you don’t come I’m going to take your children to a detention center.”

When Ana arrived at the apartment complex, the immigration agents allowed her to say goodbye to the man she considers her husband. As they held each other tightly, Martinez told her he did not want to return to Mexico. It was dangerous, he said, and Martinez had a gut feeling that if he returned he would die at the hands of drug traffickers.

Ana says Martinez had 90 days to show physical proof that his life was under threat to qualify. His fears weren’t exactly unfounded—Mexico reported more than 17,000 drug-related killings in 2015—but it was just an instinct, so he was denied asylum. Martinez is now destined for deportation nearly two months after his arrest after failing to provide substantial evidence of potential danger.

“He has to find a lawyer to represent him or he’ll be deported,” she said.

Meanwhile, the couple’s children are scared and rattled. Ana says they wake up in the middle of the night screaming for their father. They leave food at the dinner table, hoping their dad will return home that night. The younger ones ask questions Ana doesn’t want to answer, or that she can’t answer. Other children who know about Martinez’s arrest tease his kids. One of Ana’s boys ran out of school one day screaming and wailing for his father.

“I think he is suffering from depression and I don’t know how to help him,” Ana says of her son. “There is nothing I can say to make him feel better.”

Trump may remain committed to ramping up deportations, but this pattern is not new. ICE acted similarly during President Barack Obama’s administration. In March 2015, ICE officials arrested 2,059 people, compared to the more than 680 people arrested this February.

Still, knowing it’s par for the course does nothing to quell the community’s fear.

“Since the Republican administration has come in with a threatening rhetoric and very threatening action, everyone is terrified and concerned,” says Meg Barnhouse, a senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin. Her church, along with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church led by Pastor Jim Rigby, were the first two churches to offer sanctuary to immigrants and laid the foundation for the creation of Austin Sanctuary Network. Barnhouse says teachers who belong to her church report students who are too distracted to learn because of “videos on their phones of people being dragged away.”

“ICE agents are breaking families apart and don’t seem to care.”

Barnhouse admits the ICE operations are not unique to Trump’s administration but believes Obama’s administration enforced immigration policies in ways that made more sense.

“This administration seems to be keeping its campaign promise to its base to be aggressive about deporting people who are undocumented, especially people who have some criminal record,” she says. “The problem with that is they don’t distinguish between people using a fake social security number, so they can get a job”—or people like Martinez, with one-time non-violent arrests—“from a serious or violent crime.”

Some Austin families have been luckier than others. Griselda Ponce, whose law firm represented five cases resulting from the February arrests, said three of the individuals she represented did not have prior criminal convictions and have since been released, usually after being held over the weekend for processing.

“ICE agents have been taking it upon themselves to refocus their efforts on those with criminal records,” Ponce says, adding that ICE agents have been given “additional discretion” on how to handle cases of undocumented immigrants. She has found that ICE agents in Austin have been more lenient compared to those in other jurisdictions.

“The unfortunate situation is that the general public is still fearful and it’s not until they encounter that situation that they find the hopeful side of it,” Ponce says.

Ana hasn’t seen that hopeful side yet. She spends every free moment reaching out to lawyers in Austin, San Antonio, and beyond to see if any will take on her partner’s case. The response is always the same: Either Ana can’t afford them or it’s hopeless. In 2011, Martinez drove past a stop light and was found to be intoxicated by a police officer. He was deported to Mexico but made the treacherous journey back to the United States within months because he “couldn’t stand to be away from his kids.”

“He hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since,” Ana says. “[ICE agents] are breaking families apart and don’t seem to care.”

Some of the deported immigrants had criminal records that included assault, drug trafficking, sex offense against a child and homicide per the Statesman’s reports. Ana contrasts Martinez with those arrests, saying he has been “a good man, a good father.” He worked hard in construction and then came home and found the energy to play with his children. He encouraged them in their classwork. He spent Saturdays cheering them on as they played soccer in local leagues. Martinez’s whole identity revolves around his children.

“We pay our taxes, we contribute to the economy,” she says. “We keep to ourselves and raise our children well.”

Meanwhile, Ana is trying to lay low. She has seen other undocumented immigrants get arrested just outside H-E-B on Seventh Street. It brings back her own family’s trauma. She wonders if she could head up north to Canada. She wonders: Would we make it safely? Or should I give up and head south of the border to Mexico?

“My four youngest children are American,” she says. “I don’t want them to be in that environment where they could be raped or murdered. I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

Even though the anxiety over immigration may be just as high in a liberal city like Austin, there are active efforts to counteract the threat of senseless deportations and the pervasive feeling of fear. The city council is mostly pro-immigration. Sally Hernandez is standing her ground. Austin mayor Steve Adler went on MSNBC to emphasize the importance of trust between law enforcement and the immigration community. And the city is full of activists like Alejandro Caceres, an immigration organizer for Austin-based immigration advocacy group Grassroots Leadership.

Caceres says his staff began preparing itself for this situation from the moment it heard Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

“We needed to take everything that the Trump administration had said at face value,” Caceres says. “If he says he’s looking to deport one million people in the first year, as ridiculous as that sounds, we need to prepare for that.”

He doesn’t think the February arrests were in retaliation of Hernandez’s policies or Austin’s outspoken liberal politicians, so much as “retaliation against our immigrant community.”

But Caceres sees Hernandez’s election as progress. Even though “Austin has never been a sanctuary city”—there were on average 19 deportations a week under Obama, he points out—he says a major reason Hernandez won her election was because she ran on an immigration-friendly policy, and she appears to be keeping her campaign promises. Grassroots Leadership, along with other immigration advocacy groups, had pushed for leniency on undocumented immigrants for four years but past sheriffs opted not to challenge the status quo.

“I think Austin is trying to stand for good liberal values,” Barnhouse says. Despite the fight on the national level, “I think the Sanctuary Network feels fortunate to be in Austin where our police department and city council is on the same page, more or less.”

*Names have been changed to protect undocumented members of Martinez’s family.

Christine Bolaños is an award-winning freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She was a 2016 International Women’s Media Foundation fellow and she covers government, education, human interest features and business for numerous international, national and local outlets.

This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters and essayists across the country. Read more here.

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