Texas Gov. Greg Abbott dealt his first fiscal threat Wednesday to so-called “sanctuary cities” by making a $250 million array of criminal justice grants off-limits to counties that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The new restrictions mirror a failed effort by Republicans in Congress last month to block money to jurisdictions that don’t share immigration information or honor federal detention requests. The White House had threatened a veto, and Democrats criticized the proposal as anti-immigrant.
Abbott, a Republican who frustrated conservative activists by not pushing get-tough immigration measures earlier in his term, is now implementing the idea on a smaller scale in Texas.
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez provoked Abbott’s threat after recently announcing that the nation’s seventh-largest jail may no longer honor all federal requests to keep certain immigrant suspects in extended custody under the Secure Communities program. However, Dallas County has yet to turn down any of the nearly 1,500 “immigration hold” requests this year, spokesman Raul Reyna said.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Wednesday that he was not concerned about Abbott’s threat. His department has been “fully compliant” with federal restrictions at least since he has been sheriff — the past 15 years.
“We follow every policy they have so that none of those people are released out on the street,” Anderson said. “I don’t think the governor’s new policy will have any adverse effect on Tarrant County.
“ICE gets them out fairly quickly — 99.9 percent of the time, they make the decision they’ll get them or release the hold within a day.”
Sheriffs in other big Texas counties, such as Austin and San Antonio say they grant all Secure Communities detainer requests. Harris County’s sheriff’s department participates in a different ICE program, called 287 (g) that effectively grants the agency authority for immigration enforcement, the Houston Chronicle has reported.
In a detainer request, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which has access to fingerprint data taken at county jail bookings, asks jails to hold immigrants who are arrested on suspicion of crimes for up to 48 hours, giving its agents time to decide whether to take the person into federal custody and pursue deportation.
Renewed call for state law
More than a dozen Texas cities and counties currently have soft policies about whether they abide by the requests, a fact that has drawn criticism from conservative Republican groups and was behind an unsuccessful move in the legislative session earlier this year to pass a state law requiring compliance.
Abbott has said he intends to make the passage of such a law a priority when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2017.
Congressional Republicans had introduced their legislation after a Mexican national in the country illegally was charged in the fatal shooting of a San Francisco woman this summer. On Tuesday, the San Francisco sheriff who vigorously defended the city’s sanctuary policies lost his bid for re-election by a 2-to-1 margin.
Valdez has said her jail may no longer honor detainer requests for people accused of minor crimes. Reyna declined comment on Abbott’s directive, citing a lawsuit filed against the sheriff’s office last week by people who say they were detained for unconstitutionally long periods.
The lawsuit was filed the same day Abbott sent a letter publicly embracing “sanctuary cities” crackdowns that Republicans have tried and failed to pass in Texas since 2011. Abbott until then had mostly deflected questions about whether he supported such proposals.
Abbott said Wednesday that counties applying for criminal justice grants controlled by his office must now certify that federal detention requests will be honored. Dallas County has received about $78,000 so far this year, a fraction of the $146 million sheriff’s office budget.
It’s “vitally important that sheriffs lead by example and enforce the rule of law,” the governor declared.
In a letter to all Texas sheriffs, Abbott said: “Beginning now, all [Criminal Justice Division] grant awards will require that Sheriff’s Departments fully honor ICE’s detention requests for criminal immigrants. Any applicant that cannot certify that their office will honor all ICE detainers for criminal immigrants will be ineligible for CJD funding. Further, any applicant that certifies full compliance with ICE detainer requests — but subsequently fails to honor an ICE detainer — will be subject to claw-back provisions and must refund the full amount of their CJD grant award.
“As governor, I simply will not allow grant funding administered by this office to support law enforcement agencies that refuse to cooperate with a federal law enforcement program that is intended to keep dangerous criminals off Texas streets.”
Democrats and pro-immigrant groups in Texas and beyond blasted Abbott immediately, as they have for years on the issue, saying the governor and his allies are pumping up a bogus issue as part of their broader anti-immigrant agenda.
Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said Texas county jails routinely comply with the requests.
“I’m not sure Texas has any sanctuary cities,” he said.
In Dallas, Roberto Corona, an immigration activist, said ICE holds are “totally optional. That is why other cities and states have been able to stand up for the community and all these insane deportations. That’s why we have all this separation of families.”
In Los Angeles, lawyer Chris Newman, who works with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, called the move ill-conceived.
“It hardly makes sense to deprive law enforcement agencies of resources in order to make a political point about immigrants,” Newman said. “But thankfully the U.S. Constitution categorically prohibits the ‘arrest first, investigate later’ approach favored by the Governor.”
Conservative groups were just as quick in offering praise for Abbott’s move. A group of several dozen Republican lawmakers said they continue to stand behind the governor and are prepared to take action to achieve their goals when the Legislature returns in 2017.
Who is responsible?
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he has no doubt that Anderson will follow the law, but noted that Abbott’s position puts counties in a tough position because it could hold an entire county responsible for the actions of just one elected official — the sheriff.
County commissioners and other county officials “have no ability to control other elected officials,” Whitley said.
If one county official doesn’t follow the letter of the law, the entire county could lose grants that affect sheriff’s department operations including the jail, and even areas such as indigent defense.
“We shouldn’t penalize the whole county,” Whitley said. “We have no control over elected officials and what they do.”
And if the county were to come up short on funding because of the loss of grants, “we have to pay [for the programs] and it penalizes the the taxpayers,” Whitley said.
“That’s pretty far-reaching,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that could affect.”
Anderson, reached Wednesday evening, said he did not immediately remember how much the county receives from the grant program. The money helps pay for body cameras, body armor such as bulletproof vests, task force operations and more, he said.
The immigration holds have not created jail overcrowding, he said.
Staff writers John Gravois, Monica S. Nagy and Anna Tinsley contributed to this report, which includes material from the Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.