This could get ugly.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is formally demanding that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez reverse her new policy on cooperation with federal immigration authorities or lose state dollars, further escalating a showdown over “sanctuary cities” that have been in the crosshairs of Republican officials.
“This is not a pronouncement of sound public policy; it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake,” Abbott wrote to Hernandez — whose jurisdiction includes Austin — in a letter dated Monday.
The newly elected sheriff, who campaigned on the issue, announced Friday that her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. Her office said it would continue to hold people charged with very serious crimes, such as capital murder.
But that was not enough for Abbott, whose letter calls the policy, which is set to go into effect Feb. 1, “shortsighted” and backed by “frivolous” justifications. He quickly reacted Friday on Twitter, saying that his office “will cut funding for Travis County adopting sanctuary. Stiffer penalties coming.”
Abbott’s threat targets Criminal Justice Division grant money that is administered by his office. Travis County got almost $1.8 million from the division over the past year “based upon the commitment that federal immigration law would be enforced,” according to the letter.
“Your policy is in violation of that commitment,” Abbott told Hernandez. “Unless you reverse your policy prior to its effective date, your unilateral decision will cost the people of Travis County money that was meant to be used to protect them.”
In the letter, Abbott also made clear that he intends to make an example out of Hernandez during the 85th Legislative Session that started earlier this month. Abbott is set to lay out his priorities in his State of the State address, which is scheduled for Jan. 31.
Let’s pause for a moment to marvel at the glory of Greg Abbott – Greg Abbott! – demanding that federal law be obeyed and enforced. It’s almost as if all of his previous blathering about “states rights” and “federal overreach” was based not on principle but crass partisan politics. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.
While basically everyone agrees that violent criminals who are undocumented should be deported, they represent a tiny fraction of the people who have been expelled from the country. The vast overwhelming majority are just ordinary people, including a lot of children who get swept up with their parents; many others get left behind without one or both parents. The Chron goes into some of the issues.
Though Travis County could be the first jurisdiction in Texas to lose funding over its immigration detainer policy, it’s not the first time Abbott has threatened to cut money over the issue. After Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez made minor changes to her county’s policy last year, he also promised to slash funding. It ultimately stayed in place because the county never declined an immigration detainer.
Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has said that he is also concerned about holding inmates without pending charges for immigration enforcement, but will continue working with the federal government while he studies the issue.
Political fighting over so-called sanctuary cities has waged for years.
Though it is strictly the federal government who enforces immigration law, Washington and local entities began cooperating on the issue in 2008. The program matches the fingerprints of every person booked into jail against a sweeping law enforcement database, including immigration information from the Department of Homeland Security.
After they determined someone was here illegally, federal officials could request that local authorities detain those immigrants even if they were otherwise eligible for release, say by posting bond or having their criminal charges dropped.
Roughly one-sixth of the record 2.5 million immigrants President Barack Obama deported between 2008 and 2015 were removed through this program, many of them after being booked into jail on misdemeanor crimes.
Critics said it encouraged racial profiling and deported immigrants accused of minor crimes such as traffic offenses rather than focusing the government’s limited resources on violent immigrants. Several federal courts, none in Texas, also found that it could violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Five states and more than 500 counties have scaled back on cooperating with the federal government on the issue, according to a tally by the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group in Los Angeles.
Though the Obama administration overhauled the program in 2015 to try to address constitutional concerns, they remain. Last summer, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office was sued for holding a man for more than two months after officials dismissed the misdemeanor assault charge that had him flagged by immigration officials to begin with.
Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national immigrant advocacy group in San Francisco, said federal detainer requests are civil orders, not arrest warrants meeting Fourth Amendment requirements.
You know all those arguments we’ve been having about why bail reform is needed to ensure our county jail isn’t stuffed full of people who aren’t a threat to anyone and who in many cases have never been (and never will be) convicted of a crime? The same is true for immigrant detention centers, and the stakes are a lot higher. That doesn’t even get into the whole sordid private prison industry, which has been the driving force behind the construction of many of those detention centers. Requiring local police to enforce federal immigration law is a huge drain on their resources, and has been devastating to a lot of people who have done nothing harmful. And as Sheriff Hernandez fights this battle in Travis County, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez made his own promises about 287(g), which he says he is still working on. People are going to expect an answer soon. Campos and Stace have more.