Gov. Greg Abbott carried out his promise Wednesday to cut some state grant funds to Travis County in light of the new sheriff’s jail policy related to immigration, leaving county officials scrambling to fund a special court for veterans and other criminal justice programs.
Abbott’s announcement came the same day that Sheriff Sally Hernandez enacted a new policy 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 policy greatly limits the sheriff’s office’s cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under her predecessor, Greg Hamilton, the federal agency had used the Travis County Jail as a place to locate and detain suspected undocumented immigrants for possible deportation.
Abbott has called Hernandez’s new policy a threat to public safety, and he has named banning so-called sanctuary cities a top priority of the legislative session. “Stiffer penalties coming soon,” Abbott warned in a tweet Wednesday.
The cuts announced Wednesday morning affect about $1.5 million in grant money that Travis County receives from the criminal justice division of the governor’s office. The grants support projects such as family violence education and a special court for veterans.
But that could be just the beginning. Abbott has directed state agencies to identify funds, both state and federal, that flow to Travis County, and President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order promising to withhold federal money from sanctuary cities and counties.
Travis County officials estimate that there is about $52 million in active state and federal grants that are potentially in jeopardy — that’s about 5 percent of the county’s 2017 budget.
Doing the state’s work
The new jail policy changes a longstanding agreement that let ICE agents 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.
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.
Hernandez stood by her policy in an interview with reporters Wednesday and said she is following state and federal laws. Federal courts across the country have ruled that compliance with ICE requests to hold inmates is voluntary, not mandatory.
“It’s just we have a policy that’s based on our community,” Hernandez said. “It’s very important, specifically in communities like Austin that’s very diverse, that we build that trust. We want people in the community running to us, not running from us.”
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt reiterated in a press conference and a two-page letter Wednesday that she was confident Hernandez’s policy is lawful.
“When the state cuts off our ability to do its business, it is cutting off its ability to govern,” she said. “We want that revenue back, not for selfish purposes. We want that revenue back to do the state’s work.”
Though disappointed, Eckhardt said the county will work to continue operating programs that were paid for by the grants.
Judge Elisabeth Earle, who presides over the county’s DWI court, an alcohol-use treatment and case management program for repeat offenders, said the program will lose about $260,000 as a result of the cuts. Earle said that money goes directly toward treatment. The effects, she said, will be felt immediately.
“The participants of the program are less likely to re-offend,” Earle said. “If these types of programs are not continued, then I’m concerned about our public safety.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, released a statement strongly condemning Abbott’s actions.
“Its vindictiveness is more like Russian President (Vladimir) Putin’s authoritarian regime than our democracy,” Doggett wrote. “His anti-immigrant hysteria damages local law enforcement and our entire community.”
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar criticized the governor’s funding cancellations in a statement as well.
“In a cowardly and unethical attempt to punish our Sheriff politically, Abbott is hurting vulnerable people in Austin and Travis County,” Casar wrote. “Abbott’s actions are unacceptable, unethical, un-American, and unconstitutional.”
As others have doubled down on the new policy, the sole conservative on the Travis County Commissioners Court, Gerald Daugherty, has repeatedly raised concerns about the political and financial ramifications.
Just a day earlier, Daugherty had hesitated to move forward with the county’s request to the Legislature for two new civil district courts without knowing how funding cuts might affect the county’s budget. Daugherty said Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised by the governor’s action and worried that more cuts could be on the way.
“The more that Travis County fights this, the more incensed the governor and the feds are going to get over this, and I just fear that they will start looking for every way possible to really cause us a lot of problems from a financial standpoint,” Daugherty said.
Correction: This article has been updated to indicate that the $52 million in active state and federal grants is about 5 percent of Travis County’s budget, not a larger amount.