January 21, 2017; Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sally Hernandez, the newly elected sheriff of Travis County, Texas, has officially announced her intention to restrict her department’s cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement beginning on February 1st. Hernandez took this action despite long-standing warnings from Texas Governor Greg Abbott that any city, county, college, or other authority declaring itself a “sanctuary city” that does not cooperate in federal immigration law enforcement would be subject to economic sanctions from the state.
Travis County has a population of about 1.2 million people, with almost 30 percent being Hispanic or Latino of any race. It includes the state’s capital, Austin, also home to the University of Texas. Austin has long been a liberal bastion in a generally conservative state, proud of its informal “Keep Austin Weird” slogan. To further emphasize the political and ideological divide between the city and the state, Hernandez is a Democrat and Abbott is a Republican.
Cutting state funding to the sheriff’s department could cost it about $1.8 million a year in criminal justice division (CJD) grant funds, which Abbott claims are contingent on “a commitment to enforce federal immigration law.” Abbott used a tweet to imply additional sanctions could be imposed, promising to “up the ante.” Abbott plans to request new legal sanctions against sanctuary cities be considered by the Texas Legislature.
Sheriff Hernandez announced her decision in a two-page policy memo that said the policy’s purpose is “to protect and serve all residents of Travis County regardless of their immigration status, and to ensure the continued participation of victims and witnesses regardless of their immigration status.” The policy applies only to county inmates and other persons already in the custody of the sheriff’s department. “This office will not increase our liability or set unwise public safety priorities simply to ease the burden of the federal government,” she said.
Under the policy, the sheriff’s department will not share inmate information with federal Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) to verify immigration status unless presented with a court order to do so in specific cases, or unless the inmate is charged with murder where the death penalty applies (capital murder), first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human smuggling.
The Travis County policy memo was swiftly followed by a three-page response letter from Governor Abbott, bluntly telling Hernandez that “your recent policy directive forbidding Travis County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) employees from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—except in the most limited of circumstances—betrays your oath and the residents of Travis County.” Abbott challenged her logic and her criteria for cooperation, citing several felonies against persons and property that aren’t covered in her policy memo.
You offer two justifications for your actions, but both are frivolous. First, you claim you have no legal power to comply with ICE detainers. That proves too much, of course, because by your own admission, TCSO will honor some ICE detainers—for example, when the alien is charged with or convicted of capital murder. You have the exact same legal authority to honor ICE detainers for capital murder cases as you do for other crimes that you personally deem unworthy of enforcement. Second, you claim that TCSO should focus on “public safety,” while the federal government focuses on immigration enforcement. That ignores, of course, that the individuals subject to ICE detainers pose grave threats to public safety. The whole point of ICE’s detainer program is to ensure that the worst of the worst do not walk free and further jeopardize public safety.
Unless a resolution is reached quickly, the standoff between Abbott and Hernandez will come to a head next week when the new policy takes effect in Travis County and the governor cuts state support of the sheriff’s department. The political and policy stakes are high for both sides, not to mention for the current and future inmates in custody in Austin.—Michael Wyland