Travis County Sheriff candidates spar on immigrant detention program

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The audience at a Travis County Sheriff’s race forum remained measurably quiet Saturday evening, but when each of the six candidates were asked to describe their stances on the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, the mood in the room flipped from reserved to alert.

Each of the candidates broke along party lines on one of incumbent Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s most controversial programs, in which local police departments are told to cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in targeting and detaining undocumented immigrants illegally residing in the country.

When Hamilton decided against running for re-election in 2016, local activists and immigration rights supporters saw an opportunity to ending the unpopular program that was implemented
under his tenure. 

“Getting ICE out of Austin is the main reason why I’m here,” said Dora Gonzalez, social work and American studies senior. “A lot of [the candidates] had a lot of things to say about what that could look like.”

The four Democrats in the race — Constable Sally Hernandez, Lakeway police Chief Todd Radford, Travis County Sgt. Don Rios and former sheriff’s deputy John Sisson — and Green Party candidate Debbie Russell have previously said they would unequivocally support ending the program and reiterated their support at the forum held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin. 

“Legitimacy is about how you create trust within your community,” Radford said. “This type of practice, having Travis County deputies act as immigration agents, deteriorates that trust.”

The lone Republican in the race, private investigator Joe Martinez, disagreed with the other candidates on ending the ICE program, arguing that anyone wanting to enter the United States must do so legally.

“I understand that there’s millions of people coming to this country trying to find a better life,” Martinez said. “But if you obey our laws, then nobody is going to bother you.”

As the forum went on, the Democratic candidates got into a frenzied discussion when Rios and Sisson accused Radford and Hernandez of being dishonest to voters, alleging the latter two show support for ending the program in public and then go back on their stances in private meetings with local newspaper editorial boards.

“When we were in front of the [Austin] American-Statesman editorial board, … there was a clear separation,” Rios said. “Nobody at this table is going to deny that conversation did not happen. It is up to you to really look at who you really want as your Travis
County Sheriff.”

In response to Rios’s accusations — which were backed by both Russell and Sisson — Hernandez defended herself by saying she has been a longtime supporter of getting rid of the ICE program.

“I am insulted at them saying that,” Hernandez said. “I believe that we need to renew our relationship with the immigrant community …. I am against ICE, clearly.”

In addition to their stances on the ICE program, candidates at the forum argued they were the best candidates for the sheriff position because of their commitment to reforming Travis County prisons and increasing transparency.

“We want to be able to trust who’s running the prisons,” Gonzalez said.

Although the primary election day is still a few weeks away on March 1, voters can head to the polls during the early voting period beginning this week from Feb. 16 through Feb. 26.