Abbott warns sheriffs to comply with federal immigration requests

Gov. Greg Abbott amped up his campaign against so-called sanctuary cities Wednesday, sending a warning letter to all Texas sheriffs that if they don’t fully comply with all federal requests for detaining “criminal immigrants” being held in their jails, he will deny them some criminal justice grant funding under his control.

“I am establishing new standards for Sheriff’s Departments that seek grants from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD),” Abbott wrote. “Beginning now, all CJD grant awards will require that Sheriff’s Departments fully honor ICE’s detention requests for criminal immigrants. Any applicant that cannot certify that their office will honor all ICE detainers for criminal immigrants will be ineligible for CJD funding. Further, any applicant that certifies full compliance with ICE detainer requests — but subsequently fails to honor an ICE detainer — will be subject to claw-back provisions and must refund the full amount of their CJD grant award.”

The letter places Abbott, a fierce critic of federal incursions on state power, in the novel situation of using his authority to demand that local Texas law enforcement officials discard their discretion in fealty to federal immigration policy, a demand the federal government cannot and doesn’t attempt to enforce on its own.

But, in the hot-button politics of immigration, it allows the governor to take a tough stance that wins headlines and plaudits on Fox News — “good job in Texas, I’ll tell you that,” Sean Hannity said last week — and placates the Republican base, while deflecting calls from some legislators and tea party groups for a special session of the Legislature on sanctuary cities and other efforts designed to crack down on unauthorized immigration.

Abbott has indicated he won’t call a special session, but that sanctuary cities ought to be an issue in legislative campaigns in 2016 and on the docket of the Legislature’s next session in 2017.

“I think more than anything else it’s symbolic politics targeted to the GOP primary base and activists,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “But it’s also a shot across the bow to sheriffs across the state, putting them on notice that, when in doubt, they are better off abiding by the federal requirements than ignoring them.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can request that local jails hold onto inmates who appear to be in the country illegally beyond their scheduled release date so that ICE agents can pick the person up. However, local law enforcement agencies have decided whether to cooperate with federal authorities at their own discretion.

While some of the grant money in question originates with the federal government, Abbott’s communications director, Matt Hirsch, said the governor’s office believes it has the authority to set conditions on its distribution.

The amount of money potentially at stake isn’t huge. For example, the Travis County sheriff’s office has received $58,000 in grant funds this year that are in the categories that would be at risk if it failed to fully comply with Abbott’s standard.

Jones noted that the cost of detaining the prisoners for additional time is an “unfunded federal mandate” borne by county sheriffs and would likely exceed the amount of grant money at stake. If the grant money were cut off, he said, local sheriffs would have all the less reason to cooperate with detainer requests that cost them a lot of money.

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton cooperates with ICE detainer requests.

But Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin office of Grassroots Leadership, which backs sanctuary policies, said that could change because the other Democratic candidates seeking to succeed Hamilton have been critical of the sheriff’s approach.

Jones said a potential political showdown between Abbott and largely Democratic Travis County on the issue would in all likelihood suit the governor’s political interests.

As things stand now, Libal said that sanctuary cities per se — referring to communities that outright declare their refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement — don’t exist in Texas, including in Dallas County. There, Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez recently acknowledged she was using some discretion in not detaining some people who had committed minor offenses for an additional 48 hours, which sparked a sharp reaction from the governor and brought his renewed attention to the issue.

“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 Valdez last week.

Libal said he was disappointed that the governor would want to punish local officials “who are trying to do the right thing.”

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