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County commissioners split on jail grant for unauthorized immigrants


Upon arriving at what might have been a routine agenda item, Travis County commissioners wrestled this week with the potential implications, politically or otherwise, of accepting federal money for holding unauthorized immigrants in its jail.

Ultimately, the majority of commissioners voted to accept the money, but their heated discussion might foreshadow the debates to come as immigration becomes a policy focus on the state and national stages.

At issue was a $400,955 grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program requested by the Travis County sheriff’s office for holding 665 inmates between June 2014 and July 2015. Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to accept the money, with Commissioners Brigid Shea and Margaret Gómez dissenting.

The grant program provides federal payments for jail costs for unauthorized immigrants who have at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law, and who are incarcerated for at least four consecutive days.

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton has long cooperated with requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to hold inmates who are suspected of being in the U.S. illegally so the agency can begin deportation proceedings. But that might change under Sheriff-elect Sally Hernandez, who has been critical of that policy.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she did a “gut check” and voted to accept the grant because she doesn’t see it as an incentive for the county to honor ICE detentions. Plus, she said, the detentions the grant covers “we would have been doing anyway,” noting these inmates were arrested for other crimes.

“(Rejecting the grant) would send no message other than we’re stupidly rejecting money that has no policy effect on us,” she said. “If I’m going to reject money, it’s going to be because it was having a policy effect on us.”

Eckhardt emphasized that she would take a hard line against other levels of government in the future seeking to use their discretion over grant funding to influence policy.

Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott warned that he intended to withhold funds from local governments adopting “sanctuary” policies. And President-elect Donald Trump has promised to deport millions of immigrants and cut off federal funding for local governments that do not cooperate.

“If they’re going to force us into a policy position that isn’t resonant with our community, we’ll reject the grant,” Eckhardt said, later clarifying her belief that “yes, our community standards would be violated by a broad detainer and deportation policy at the federal level.”

Travis County has participated in this reimbursement program since 1998, according to county documents.

The sheriff’s office plans to use $100,000 to cover jail staffing overtime costs and $300,955 to buy additional security cameras at the Travis County Correctional Complex, according to a memo. There are several areas within the jail that lack cameras and some areas that need upgrading or replacing, the memo said.

Votes to accept grant funding are typically handled on the consent agenda, a group of uncontroversial items passed on a single vote. But Commissioner Gerald Daugherty pulled this item for discussion to express concerns about the implications of accepting or rejecting the funds.

“I think it’s pertinent to consider what is seeming to be something in this community about some sort of designation as a sanctuary community,” Daugherty said. “This might be premature. … I’m just trying to make a point we’re going to have to get out in front of some of this.”

Daugherty and Commissioner Ron Davis said they worried about the strain on the county’s general fund if commissioners one day choose to forgo grants.

Whether these grants were directly related to immigration policy or not, Shea and Gómez said they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the item.

“We’ve heard from our president-elect … he’s talked about deporting millions and millions of people, and I don’t want our local arm of government to be used as a tool in that,” Shea said. “I don’t want any part of this.”

Gómez acknowledged that the money had already been spent but still disagreed with the ethics of taking it.

“The community that it has affected has a terrible taste in their mouth about this … and I want to listen to the community,” she said.


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