After days of political attacks over a policy that would be the most liberal in the state on detaining jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez broke her silence Thursday, stating that she will stay the course.
“I respect the job of our state leaders, but I will not allow fear and misinformation to be my guiding principles as a leader sworn to protect this community,” Hernandez said. “The voters, who elected state leaders and me, expect and deserve a collaborative effort to come up with solutions to this very complex issue. That is precisely what I’m committed to.”
Hernandez’s response came a day after Gov. Greg Abbott told Fox News that he would work to oust Hernandez and any other Texas sheriffs who refuse federal immigration requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants for possible deportation.
Abbott previously threatened to cut off an estimated $2 million in grant money if Hernandez enacts her policy on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detainers,” which would greatly limit cooperation with ICE and end its agents’ unrestricted access to the Travis County Jail.
Her critics say Hernandez would be acting illegally and breaking her oath of office. Not so, Hernandez fired back.
“I am following all state and federal laws and upholding constitutional rights to due process for all in our criminal justice system,” Hernandez’s statement said. “Our community is safer when people can report crimes without fear of deportation. I trust the court system and our judges to assess the risks and set appropriate bonds and conditions for all who are incarcerated.”
At question is whether ICE requests, known as detainers, to hold suspected undocumented immigrants are legally binding orders.
The answer is no, according to the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies. However, the center also said that not complying is inadvisable and is a partisan practice that came about under President Barack Obama’s administration when they were called optional.
“It’s not illegal, but it is not really optional,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the organization. “No law enforcement agency would consider a detainer from the U.S. Marshal’s Service or MPs (military police) optional. It only happens in immigration because, politically speaking, they don’t like immigration laws.”
Enforcing ICE detention requests has been called unconstitutional. In 2014, a federal court in Oregon found that the detention of an undocumented immigrant after her release from state charges violated her Fourth Amendment rights by holding her without probable cause.
Hernandez’s policy, which she announced last week on YouTube, calls for a judicial order or a warrant to enforce any ICE detention requests, with a few exceptions: inmates who have either been charged with or convicted of capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or human smuggling.
Law enforcement in Suffolk County, N.Y., enacted a similar policy, and ICE officials cooperated by getting court orders for detentions, Krikorian said. It ultimately led his organization to cross the county off its list of more than 300 jurisdictions it says are “sanctuary cities.” Travis and Dallas counties are the only Texas communities on the list.
A state Senate bill that has been filed to force compliance with ICE detainers in Texas might become the framework for Abbott as he tries forge a way to remove any local politicians from office who don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
An option for Abbott and his staff would be to ask Lubbock Republican state Sen. Charles Perry to amend his bill to include a proposal for penalties — or help draft another bill that would possibly be introduced by other lawmakers. Perry didn’t respond to requests for comment made to his office.
The governor is widely expected to declare the issue an emergency item in his upcoming State of the State address, which would allow lawmakers to immediately begin debating such measures and possibly passing them into law.
For years, federal immigration authorities have relied on local jails as a place to locate and detain suspected undocumented immigrants for possible deportation. In Democratic-controlled Travis County, former Sheriff Greg Hamilton had sparked controversy by offering full compliance with ICE officials.