Hernandez softens stance on making Austin a ‘sanctuary city’

About the candidates

Sally Hernandez, 58, is a Democrat who is finishing her first term as Travis County Precinct 3 constable. As constable, she promoted neighborhood watch programs and partnered with schools on deputy constable patrols. Hernandez previously spent 21 years as an investigator at the Travis County district attorney’s office. She grew up in Llano and got her degree in criminal justice from St. Edward’s University. She moved to Austin in 1988.

Joe Martinez, 71, is a Republican who is a licensed private investigator. He is co-owner and lead investigator for Austin-based CM Investigations, which conducts investigations for attorneys in indigent defense cases. Martinez has 34 years of law enforcement experience, including stints with the Travis County sheriff’s office, the Texas attorney general’s office and 18 years as an investigator at the Travis County district attorney’s Office. He grew up in East Austin.

Debbie Russell, 48, is the Green Party candidate. She is the executive director of the Pecan Street Association and a member of the Del Valle school district board. She also volunteers for the American Civil Liberties Union-Texas focusing on police accountability and open government. Russell grew up in Houston, where she got a degree in English literature from the University of Houston. She moved to Austin 19 years ago.

Eric Guerra, 26, is a Libertarian who is a full-time student studying government at the University of Texas. He grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., and moved to Austin in 2008. He is the treasurer of the Travis County Libertarian Party and has been a delegate at state and national conventions for the party since 2014.

About the job

The sheriff oversees the county’s law enforcement agency and jail system, with about 1,662 employees and a budget of $162 million. The job pays $139,980 and the term is four years.

Sally Hernandez has come to accept that the term “sanctuary city” has become inexorably linked with her campaign for Travis County sheriff, even as her position on cooperating with immigration officials has softened ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Hernandez, currently the Travis County Precinct 3 constable, has reversed course multiple times on how the sheriff’s office should work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. At the campaign’s outset, she vowed to end all cooperation with ICE at the Travis County Jail.

But since winning the Democratic primary, she has backpedaled. In September, she said she wouldn’t make Austin a sanctuary city even as her Republican opponent chided her as “Sanctuary Sally.”

Then, at a forum Wednesday hosted by the Metropolitan Breakfast Club on the University of Texas campus, Hernandez was asked a yes-or-no question about whether she would make Austin a sanctuary city. She answered “yes.”

“My definition of a sanctuary is a safe place for people to live,” Hernandez later told the American-Statesman. “It’s a safe place for everybody, meaning even the immigrant community. It has to do with being able to report crimes and report that they are a victim without fear.”

Hernandez’s policy now appears to be moving toward examining ICE requests on a case-by-case basis, cooperating more fully with ICE when inmates are accused of violent crimes and felonies.

“I’m not going to end working with Immigration,” Hernandez told the Statesman.

“I am just taking a little bit more cautious approach in defining that policy,” she added. “I have been working more closely to develop that policy that I think people are going to be very proud of, and it is going to be very progressive.”

ICE’s operations at the Travis County Jail have been a controversial issue since 2008 when the sheriff’s office announced that federal agents would have unfettered access to the jail to monitor whether inmates are in the country legally. Agents can place an “ICE detainer” on inmates suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. The jail then holds those inmates for 24 hours after they would otherwise be released, providing time for ICE agents to take custody of them.

Critics have said this system can lead to people being deported after being picked up for low-level offenses, such as traffic offense warrants or public intoxication.

Hernandez’s stance has evolved as worries mounted that Gov. Greg Abbott might cut access to millions of dollars in criminal justice grants to counties that refuse to fully comply with ICE officials. Refusing cooperation with ICE could also earn the county the ire of state lawmakers who will consider legislation next year to end “sanctuary city” policies.

The dust-up has emboldened Hernandez’s Republican opponent, Joe Martinez, to take a stronger stance on cooperating with ICE.

Martinez, an Austin-based private investigator, initially signaled that he might be willing to scale back participation with ICE if elected, telling the Texas Tribune he would turn over the worst offenders to ICE agents. He now says he would fully cooperate with ICE and hand over every inmate flagged by the agency.

“Let ICE do their job; let the feds do their job,” Martinez said. “Imagine this: A guy comes from the Middle East and is brought into the jail for DWI, and he is a terrorist and he makes bond. We have now interfered with the federal government.”

Libertarian Party candidate Eric Guerra and Green Party candidate Debbie Russell round out the ballot in the race to be Travis County’s first new sheriff in 12 years, with Sheriff Greg Hamilton deciding not to seek a fourth term. Guerra said he would look at ICE detainers on a case-by-case basis. Russell said she would end all cooperation with ICE.

Hernandez has garnered endorsements from both employee organizations associated with the Travis County sheriff’s office and the influential Austin Police Association. Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is also sparring with ICE over detainers, has endorsed Hernandez.

Hamilton hasn’t endorsed a candidate.

Hernandez’s campaign spending has drastically waned since she won the March primary after spending more than $100,000. Recent campaign finance reports show she has nearly $16,903, compared with Martinez’s $2,426.

Hernandez and Martinez share common ground on improving mental health services for deputies, which has become a more prominent issue after a well-liked, long serving sergeant committed suicide in July. Both said they are seeking to end the stigma of law enforcement officers seeking counseling for mental health issues.

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