‘Redefining Sanctuary Cities’: City data collection could put some Austin residents at risk, according to SXSW panel


Austin prides itself on being a welcoming city, but its data collection may be putting some residents living in the city without legal permission at risk and its sanctuary city status has put it at odds against the Texas Legislature’s Senate Bill 4.

At the South By Southwest Conference & Festivals Interactive panel, “Redefining Sanctuary Cities,” Austin’s Chief Equity Officer Brion Oaks said the data collected “innocently” by cities could potentially be used against people by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Sanctuary cities do not have an exact legal definition, but they are known to limit their cooperation with the national government’s effort to enforce immigration law.

“For cities, our priority is to keep our people safe,” Oaks said.

Currently, the city collects demographics data on the population to help address inequalities and other objectives.

“We’re actually trying to push some of our departments to get more demographic information on the [residents]that you serve and that you work with,” he said. An unintended consequence of that, not just for Austin, is that the data could also be used by ICE.

“That’s something that we’re really learning about,” Oaks said. “I think that a lot of cities are just kind of trying to catch up and truly understand all the different data sources that you’re collecting and how those data sources could potentially be used against folks in your community.”

The city of Austin has pushed back against SB4 since before it was signed on May 7, 2017. Parts of the bill are now in effect as an appeal against it plays out. The bill requires jails to honor all federal immigration detainer requests and ensures the right of any law-enforcement officer to inquire about immigration status in the midst of a legal detainment.

Oaks said the law makes it “tougher to create safer communities” and that under the Trump administration, policies make it seem like anyone could be a target.

“We have to redefine what public safety is in our country,” Oaks said. “There’s a bias for us as Americans that when we say safe, safe means more enforcement of something.”

Follow Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage of SXSW at communityimpact.com/topics/sxsw.

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Tara Pohlmeyer
Tara began her tenure at Community Impact Newspaper as a digital content producer in August 2016, before becoming the company's engagement coordinator in October 2017. She works with editorial staff members to help create web stories, solicit reader feedback and promote content, as well as manages newsletters, analytics and videography needs for the company. Sometimes, she writes. Tara graduated from Texas State University in May 2016 with a bachelor's degree in electronic media and served as station manager for KTSW-FM 89.9.
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