Travis County stands to lose about $1.8 million in state grants because of a soon-to-be-announced policy of new Sheriff Sally Hernandez under which she is expected to stop detaining inmates for federal immigration checks.
Under a longstanding agreement, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have placed “immigration holds” or “detainers” on Travis County inmates — no matter the seriousness of the crime for which they are arrested — when they want to further investigate their status.
But County Budget Director Travis Gatlin notified other elected officials in a memo obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Tuesday that, according to Hernandez, the county will no longer be complying with a state rule that the county honor such federal requests in order to receive some grant money.
The threat to the grants, administered by the Texas governor’s office, could be the first penalty levied against the county for its policy change.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said losing the grants could mean the county — which has a total budget of nearly $1 billion — must find money to support programs that include family violence education and anti-prostitution efforts.
“The effect of requiring this loyalty letter will materially impact programs that have nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with public safety,” she said.
According to a list compiled by the county, state grants in jeopardy include money for the county’s veterans court program and services to help crime victims.
Hernandez, who took office this month and campaigned on the issue last fall, hasn’t formally announced her new policy, but Gatlin’s memo said, “sheriff Hernandez has informed (the budget office) that she will not be able to provide the required certification” for the grant funds.
“We are hopeful OOG (the office of the governor) will ultimately decide to continue funding our valuable programs,” he said.
How Travis County handles such detainers has been a political hot-button issue for years and was a widely debated topic in last year’s race for Travis County sheriff.
Currently, when suspects are booked into jail, their fingerprints are uploaded into a national database, which federal agents review for immigrants who might be staying in the country without legal permission. If they are concerned about an inmate’s status and wish to investigate, they ask counties to detain the inmate until the matter is resolved.
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.
If the county doesn’t honor detainers, that means that a suspect could post bail and be released on a pending charge. The criminal case would be handled through the court system, as usual.
Voters supported Hernandez in the Democratic primary after she campaigned on ending local cooperation with federal immigration officials at the Travis County Jail.
Her opponent dubbed her “Sanctuary Sally.”
On her campaign website, Hernandez wrote, “I believe that the current relationship between the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must end. Travis County should not honor illegal, warrantless ICE notifications or detainer requests, period.”
Hernandez couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas conservatives have called out similar policies at other agencies.
“Your refusal to fully participate in a federal law enforcement program intended to keep dangerous criminals off the streets leaves the State no choice but to take whatever actions are necessary to protect our fellow Texans,” Abbott wrote to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in November 2015.
Gatlin’s memo comes as many county agencies are currently applying for state grants. The deadline is Feb. 20.
In his memo, Gatlin said most of the current grants end Aug. 31.
“It is therefore critical to begin work immediately on viable options for the commissioner’s court to consider for programs with demonstrated results,” he wrote. “These options may include alternative funding through other grants or other outside sources.”
Officials are expected to discuss the issue publicly at a meeting Jan. 25.