In a major escalation of the state’s battle against local governments refusing to comply with federal immigration laws, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday moved to immediately carry out his promise to withhold grant money to Travis County because of a new jail policy he contends makes Texas’ capital a “sanctuary city.”
“This morning, the governor’s office is canceling all currently active Travis County criminal justice grants,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said.
So far, the state has paid only about $300,000 of $1.8 million to the county, so the loss will total about $1.5 million.
Sheriff Sally Hernandez said in an interview with reporters Wednesday that she is following state and federal laws and has no plans to change her new policy.
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A sanctuary city or campus is the general term for entities that do not comply with federal immigration law.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also responded Wednesday — in both a news conference and a two-page letter to Abbott. She said the county will work to continue operating programs that were paid for by the grants.
“I am confident Sheriff Hernandez’s policy is well within the current law,” Eckhardt wrote. “I am certain you have come to the same conclusion; else you would not be seeking to change the current state law to put all Texas sheriffs in the service the United States Department of Homeland Security.”
However, Eckhardt said the county will obey any future state laws that may be adopted concerning the matter.
“We will comply by shifting our limited resources to federal responsibilities,” she wrote.
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez has a similar policy to Travis County, but has not turned down any requests from the federal government for cooperation. Officials in several other cities have declared that they have no intention of cooperating with federal officials in turning over immigrants, but it’s unclear whether any of them meet the definition of a sanctuary city because they do not operate their own jails.
Also Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett released a statement condemning Abbott’s actions, saying, “Its vindictiveness is more like Russian President Putin’s authoritarian regime than our democracy. His anti-immigrant hysteria damages local law enforcement and our entire community.”
The grants support projects such as family violence education and a special court for veterans.
Abbott’s announcement comes as Hernandez enacted a new policy Wednesday under which she will detain inmates on behalf of federal immigration officials only when they are charged with murder, sexual assault or human smuggling.
The new policy changes a longstanding agreement that allowed agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to place “immigration holds” or “detainers” on Travis County inmates — no matter the seriousness of the crime for which they are arrested — when agents want to further investigate their status.
But critics have said the process results in deportations of people for relatively minor crimes. They also contend that suspects might be held indefinitely, only for agents to later discover they have legal permission to stay in the U.S.
Voters supported Hernandez in the Democratic primary after she campaigned on ending local cooperation with federal immigration officials at the Travis County Jail.
Abbott and his supporters say that such resistance amounts to sheriffs refusing to follow the law.
In a letter to Hernandez in late January, the governor vowed to work with the Legislature to “protect our citizens from misguided and dangerous sanctuary policies.”
“Texas must enact tough penalties that punish those who would put themselves above the law, and even above the community they purportedly serve,” Abbott wrote.
In another major development, ahead of a Thursday hearing on the measure that is expected to draw hundreds, Senate Republicans have updated their bill that would ban sanctuary cities in Texas to cover college campuses and expand potential punishments for local entities that choose to not enforce immigration laws.
Students at the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas and Texas Women’s University have held rallies urging campus officials to declare their campuses to be sanctuaries. UNT president Neal Smatresk has made it clear he will not do so.
The modified version of Senate Bill 4, by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, was given to members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday, and a public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Thursday morning.
On Tuesday, Abbott declared the issue one of four emergencies of the session. That designation means lawmakers can potentially debate and pass the bill within weeks rather than waiting for the traditional 60-day waiting period to hear bills on the floor of either chamber.
Perry’s bill would allow local police to enforce immigration laws, but only if the officer is working with a federal immigration officer or under an agreement between the local and federal agency. It would also punish local governments if their law enforcement agencies — specifically county jails — fail to honor requests, known as detainers, from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to hand over immigrants in custody for possible deportation. The punishment would be a denial of state grant funds.
Perry said the college-campus provision was added to the legislation after some student groups called for their schools to become “sanctuary campuses” to protect undocumented students.
“The college campus aspect was needed because we’ve had a lot of rhetoric from some of the college campuses [saying] this is what we’re going to go out and do,” Perry told reporters during a press conference. But Perry said campus police officers wouldn’t be in charge of adhering to federal law because students would be turned over to local authorities.
“Those college campuses have a police force that does not prosecute,” he said. “They sent those over to the county, typically, to be processed; at that point the transfer occurs and at that point the county jurisdiction begins.”
The bill was also changed to include a top-down provision that would mean a local government could jeopardize funding for every agency under its purview if it adopted a sanctuary policy.
“An entity in violation loses their state grant funds and every entity under their jurisdiction will lose funds as well,” a summary of the modified bill reads.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes content from The Texas Tribune.