In a major policy shift that is already being met with controversy, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez on Friday announced that she is scaling back the amount of help her department provides federal immigration agents in detaining suspects who might be in the country illegally.
Traditionally, the county has honored nearly all requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold a suspect booked into jail when agents have wanted to investigate their status further.
However, effective Feb. 1, sheriff’s officials will honor so-called immigration holds or “detainers” placed by federal authorities only when a suspect is booked into the Travis County Jail on charges of capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and “continuous smuggling of persons.”
Otherwise, federal agents must present a court order or arrest warrant signed by a judge for the jail to continue housing a person whose immigration status is in question, according to Hernandez’s policy, which she released Friday.
“The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement. Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers,” Hernandez said in a video announcement.
Hernandez campaigned on the issue last year, but hadn’t made any public comments about her stance since taking office this month.
Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member who has opposed unlimited deference to federal immigration authorities, praised the sheriff’s announcement.
“Her policies will help all families, immigrants or not, feel more comfortable reporting crime to law enforcement,” Casar said in a statement Friday. “This is especially important in District 4, where over a third of our population is made of up immigrants. Sheriff Hernandez’s policies focus on community trust and public safety over politics.”
This week, the American-Statesman reported that she had notified the county that it would soon no longer be complying with federal agents’ requests in many cases. The county consequently could lose up to $1.8 million in grants because the governor’s office requires compliance in order to receive grants.
Shortly after Hernandez’s announcement Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: “The Governor’s Office will cut funding for Travis County adopting sanctuary policies. Stiffer penalties coming.”