U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Tuesday that the Trump administration won’t punish Travis County for disregarding federal requests to detain local inmates suspected of being in the country illegally, according to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who was among a group of big-city mayors who met with Sessions on Tuesday.
Just hours after Sessions’ comments to representatives of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including Adler, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked a Trump administration order to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities. Travis County was one of dozens of cities and counties joining a lawsuit filed in San Francisco challenging President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order.
Tuesday was a one-two punch to opponents of a recently enacted policy by the Travis County sheriff limiting compliance with federal immigration detention requests placed on county jail inmates suspected of living in the country illegally. Those requests are a major tool used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Orrick placed a preliminary injunction on Trump’s executive order, saying the president has no authority to attach new conditions to federal spending. It will remain in place while the lawsuits work their way through court.
Adler — who along with other mayors met with Sessions, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan and other Homeland Security officials — said he was told multiple times that refusing so-called ICE detainers breaks no laws.
“It doesn’t appear that Austin or Travis County constitute a sanctionable sanctuary city,” Adler said when reached in Washington. “As best as anyone has presented, we are not violating a federal law.”
Sessions’ comments are the highest-level acknowledgement that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez isn’t breaking any law by limiting compliance with detention requests from ICE. Though Sessions didn’t speak specifically to Hernandez’s policy, he stated plainly that ICE detention requests aren’t mandatory, Adler said.
“They specifically said honoring a detainer without a warrant is a request and not mandatory under federal law,” Adler said.
That statement could be considered vindication for Hernandez, who was repeatedly harangued by critics after she announced her office would only comply with ICE detention requests for Travis County inmates charged or convicted of murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking.
“I honestly appreciate the fact that the attorney general acknowledged what I contended all along, that I am obeying the law and upholding the Constitution,” Hernandez said. “To me it feels good because I have said all along that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
The Trump administration had said that it would go after federal grants for communities deemed so-called sanctuary cities. However, Sessions clarified its stance to the group of mayors, telling them that his office will only seek to punish communities that violate a federal law that requires local law enforcement to communicate a person’s immigration status to federal officials. The Justice Department later clarified that Sessions never spoke about Austin specifically or any other government entity.
“The attorney general did not comment or provide a legal opinion as to whether Austin or any other jurisdiction is or is not in compliance with 8 U.S.C. Section 1373,” the statement said, referring to a federal law that requires local law enforcement to communicate a person’s immigration status to ICE.
Travis County is in full compliance with that law, according to the Travis County sheriff’s office and several experts who have spoken to the American-Statesman.
Gov. Greg Abbott appeared undeterred by Sessions’ comments, according to a statement from his office. In reaction to Hernandez’s policy, the governor’s office in February cut off about $1.5 million in state grant funding to Travis County that was to be used for law enforcement diversion programs such as the Veterans Court and the Phoenix Court.
“Unlike the mayor and the Travis County sheriff, the governor believes that releasing violent and dangerous criminal aliens back into our communities once they have had an ICE detainer placed on them is unacceptable,” the statement said. “That’s why Texas will pass a law to require counties to comply with ICE detainer requests. It’s the governor’s belief that Travis County is refusing to live up to this common sense safety standard.”
While Hernandez and local immigration advocates could point to a victory Tuesday, local Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said it might be fleeting with the strong momentum at the Texas Capitol behind Senate Bill 4 and its House counterpart. Both aim to do what it appears Trump’s now halted executive order can’t: make refusing ICE detainers illegal.
“Does it perhaps soften the argument that some Republicans can make? Perhaps it does,” Mackowiak said. “You can imagine a situation where a Democrat says, ‘The feds say we are in compliance, why are you cracking down on us?’”
Adler began questioning the effort to pass SB 4 just minutes after his meeting with Sessions ended.
“It does give rise to the question of the state law,” Adler said. “A lot of people are thinking that this is a law we should have because it is making people comply with a federal law. Clearly that is not the case. (SB 4) goes beyond federal law and what federal immigration requires. That doesn’t seem appropriate to me. Whether it is legal or not is up to a court to decide. But it doesn’t seem legal to me.”
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar — who has been at the forefront of immigration issues, especially since ICE sweeps in the area in February led to the arrest of 51 people — said this shows that SB 4 is unconstitutional.
“I think you’ll find lots of other cities and counties in Texas will think the same thing,” Casar said. “I anticipate that it will pass and that it will be fought.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.