Debate over how Austin authorities handle immigration laws continues

The debate over immigration laws is back in the spotlight after authorities said a San Francisco woman was shot and killed by a seven-time felon who had been deported to Mexico five times.

San Francisco is one of 70 "sanctuary" cities across the country that help shelter undocumented immigrants and prohibit local law enforcement officers from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport an inmate.  

Austin is not one of them.

"I will continue to work with ICE as long as I am sheriff here," Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton said Wednesday.

Hamilton said undocumented immigrants held on ICE detainers in Travis County are not arrested for misdemeanor crimes, but instead for felonies and that's why they are reported to federal authorities.

"What we do is we make contact with ICE and if ICE comes and picks them up before they're released then we release them to ICE," said Hamilton.   

Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Joe Berra said even that's going too far.

"By and large, the immigrant community is contributing to our economy. They're law abiding. There's no reason to make this level of law enforcement a tool of federal immigration enforcement and in some cases it does lead to a violation of an individual's civil rights," Berra said.  

Berra said he would like to see Austin follow suit of cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

"There's more undocumented immigrants deported from Travis County per capita than almost any other county in the country," Berra said.

"I agree that law enforcement shouldn't just pull people over to ask what their immigration status is, but the City of Austin, or advocacy groups, have gone a little bit further. They don't want us even working with ICE and I just don't think that's smart thinking," Hamilton said.  

The sheriff said ICE has access to records on undocumented immigrants that are not available to the sheriff's office. That's why he thinks it's better to let ICE decide what to do with undocumented immigrants that have been arrested in Travis County. After all, the sheriff said he doesn't have the manpower to enforce immigration laws without ICE's help.

"I think that we need to give ICE the opportunity to vet these individuals," said Hamilton.

Just last week the Travis County Sheriff's Office softened how they handle undocumented immigrants in their jails. That was required by the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, instead of a placing them on a 48-hour hold, undocumented immigrants are released unless there is a warrant on them.