- By Philip Jankowski American-Statesman Staff
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez ordered her office to start honoring all federal immigration detention requests placed on local jail inmates after a federal appeals court ruling Monday allowed parts of Senate Bill 4, the controversial “sanctuary cities” ban, to go into effect.
The appellate court’s order essentially undoes Hernandez’s signature policy, which was put in place one month after she took office in January. Before Monday’s ruling, her office had ignored so-called detainers placed on many inmates housed at the Travis County Jail suspected of living in the country illegally.
“As I have maintained throughout this process, I have not violated federal or state law, nor do I intend,” Hernandez said in a news release. “Our policy has been updated to comply with the findings of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Even though it’s only a temporary order — the appellate court will hear Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s appeal in November — the court’s decision was still a hearty victory for Texas Republicans who made Hernandez’s policy a flashpoint in their efforts to take a tougher stance against illegal immigration during this year’s session.
Paxton’s office said it will immediately begin enforcing the portion of the law cleared by the court that mandates compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers. In a statement, Paxton cheered the ruling and predicted victory over the legal challenges to SB 4, according to a news release.
“Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into Texas communities,” Paxton said in the statement. “I am confident Senate Bill 4 will be found constitutional and ultimately upheld.”
Despite Hernandez’s change of policy, legal interpretations of the portion of the ruling related to detainers were varied, with attorneys from a leading immigration advocacy organization deeply involved with the lawsuit insisting that detainers remain voluntary.
“We interpret (the ruling) to mean that because ICE detainers are a matter of voluntary compliance under federal law, they remain so,” said Celina Moreno, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing several plaintiffs that have sued to overturn SB 4.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the ruling sowed confusion and asked for more guidance from the court.
“The partial ruling handed down today exposes our friends and neighbors to additional uncertainty that, in practice, does no party in this case any good,” Eckhardt said in a news release.
But Paxton’s office said the ruling was straightforward: All detention requests placed on local inmates suspected of illegal immigration must be honored. Hernandez appears to have agreed with that reading.
Penalties for violating SB 4 include jail time and hefty fines of up to $25,500 a day. Elected officials found to have violated the law could be tossed from office.
Proponents of the law have framed it in the context of public safety, saying it would keep criminals off the streets and prevent them from evading immigration hearings that would lead to deportations. Opponents say SB 4 will lead to racial profiling and break apart immigrant families over minor infractions.
Monday’s ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed portions of an injunction that had blocked much of the law on the eve of its implementation. The three-judge panel’s decision was unanimous.
Now allowed are provisions in the law that bar city and county officials from prohibiting employees from sharing information with ICE.
Still blocked is a rule that prevents government and elected officials from criticizing SB 4. Local law enforcement agencies also will be able to prioritize local law enforcement actions on immigration.
But local police may investigate a person’s immigration status, a key provision that led opponents to call SB 4 the “show me your papers bill.”
San Antonio federal District Judge Orlando Garcia blocked implementation of most on SB 4 on Aug. 30, ruling that several portions of the law violated the First and Fourth amendments while other parts were pre-empted by federal law.
Monday’s ruling is the latest twist in a legal fight that began hours after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law May 7 and is likely to end at the Supreme Court, according to experts.
Paxton’s office had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the law declared constitutional before it was set to take effect Sept. 1. However, Austin federal District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed that suit Aug. 9.
The small border town of El Cenizo began a legal fight to invalidate the law days after it was signed, only to be joined by nearly every major Texas city, including Austin, in a lawsuit that remains pending in Garcia’s court.
A trial date for that lawsuit has not been set.
In reaction to the ruling, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, whose district covers parts of North and Northeast Austin and has the largest immigrant population in the city, called on the council to pass a policy that will protect the civil rights of immigrants. Casar said he would offer a policy to the council as soon as possible.
“Every local government and local law enforcement agency can take important steps in the coming days to defy Abbott’s racist coercion,” Casar said in a statement. “We can pass immigrant protection policies that direct our law enforcement agencies to protect our residents’ constitutional rights — the rights that we still all have — even under SB 4.”