Standing up for democratic institutions

Last month, a U.S. Magistrate Judge revealed that the immigration raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Central Texas in February may have been in retaliation for Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new policy that limits local police entanglement with federal immigration authorities. The possibility that federal agencies are being used as a tool for political retribution should alarm us all.

Sheriff Hernandez announced Travis County’s policy in January regarding so-called “ICE detainers.” A detainer is a request by ICE to a law enforcement agency to continue detaining a person after charges are dropped or the person posts bail, so that ICE may come to the jail and detain the person for potential immigration-related enforcement, such as removal.

Contrary to claims by the governor and federal officials, courts in various states have found ICE detainers to be voluntary for the law enforcement agency that receives them. Indeed, some courts have even declared them outright unconstitutional, as they entail the detention of a person without probable cause.

In Travis County’s case, the new policy stipulates that the county will honor ICE detainers only if they are accompanied by a judicial warrant, or if the person who is the subject of the detainer is charged with or convicted of first degree or capital murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human smuggling.

The new policy resulted in the governor immediately cutting $1.5 million in grants to Travis County, which have supported its public safety programs and crime victims’ services. The governor even called to unseat Sheriff Hernandez, who was democratically elected.

Then came the immigration raids that resulted in dozens of people being detained and placed in deportation proceedings — most of whom had no criminal histories whatsoever.

In a court hearing, federal Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin stated in court that ICE officials relayed to him that the immigration raids in Austin were in response to disagreements with the sheriff’s detainer policy. An ICE agent then responded in court and confirmed the judge’s characterization of the raids.

Following reports of the hearing, ICE issued a statement claiming that “rumors and reports” of retaliatory actions were “inaccurate.”

However that statement runs counter to the recording of the hearing, which was made public, in which Judge Austin and an ICE agent clearly discuss the targeted nature of the Austin raids. ICE’s statement, in its most benign reading, suggests that Judge Austin’s description of the motivation for the raids in open court was “inaccurate”— despite being contemporaneously confirmed by an ICE agent.

If any one city or police department here in the Rio Grande Valley were to express disagreement with the federal government, should we brace ourselves for an onslaught of federal agents conducting raids in retaliation?

Such politicallymotivated use of federal agencies and resources is anathema to the rule of law and emblematic of authoritarian regimes. Respect for the rule of law and the separation of powers is fundamental to the functioning of a democratic society such as ours.

The principle of federalism — the division of powers and jurisdictions among the federal government, states, and their subdivisions — is a foundational tenet of our constitutional democracy, the oldest living constitutional democracy in the world. Even when various entities of government disagree regarding policies, they respect one another’s sphere of competence, and the Constitution prohibits the federal government from commandeering states or their subdivisions. This constitutional structure has ensured that regardless of which political party is in power, our democracy endures.

When the federal government resorts to the use of force in retaliation for policy disagreement, our democratic institutions are at risk. A number of organizations around the state, through freedom of information requests and other related efforts, are still attempting to uncover what motivated the raids in Central Texas. If more nefarious motivations are uncovered, we can expect legal actions to ensue.

Regardless of where one stands on the immigration debate, we must find common ground in defending our institutions from political manipulation. Preserving our institutions is a more important and longlasting objective than pursuing any single shortterm policy goal.

Efrén Olivares is director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. He writes for the Monitor’s Board of Contributors.