Travis County ‘sanctuary’ policy a flashpoint in national debate


Showdown between Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and Gov. Greg Abbott is part of a national debate.

Data show that 10,000 ICE “detainer″ requests were placed on Travis County inmates in the past decade.

More than half of Travis County’s ICE detainers were for people charged with only one misdemeanor.

Two years ago, federal immigration officials asked San Francisco authorities to indefinitely detain a convicted felon, even after he was eligible for release on a drug charge, until they could begin the process to deport him a sixth time.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency issued a voluntary request, commonly called an “ICE detainer” or “immigration hold,” on 45-year-old Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. But as a “sanctuary city,” San Francisco jail officials had a policy of not cooperating with the federal government on such requests, so they set Lopez-Sanchez free.

Three months later, he was charged with murder.

In what police described as a random act, investigators said he shot and killed 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle as she walked with her father along a tourist-filled pier. The case sparked a national conversation about how people booked into local jails should be treated when authorities suspect they are in the U.S. without legal authorization.

That issue is now at the heart of a full-scale political showdown between Gov. Greg Abbott and new Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who announced nine days ago on YouTube that she would dramatically limit her cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Hernandez joins many other local authorities in her belief that such policies are fundamentally unjust — that they dismantle families over relatively minor offenses, drive up costs to the county and weaken the bond between local law enforcement and a large swath of the communities they serve.

Under a policy set to begin Wednesday, Hernandez said she will only honor such requests if an inmate has been charged with murder, sexual assault or human trafficking — or if federal agents obtain a court order or arrest warrant for a suspect. Otherwise, they will be allowed to post bail and be released, no matter their immigration status.

WATCH: Travis County sheriff announces change in immigration policy

Abbott responded with escalating threats on social media, in national TV interviews and a strongly worded letter to Hernandez. He vowed to strip from Travis County nearly $2 million in grant funds administered through his office. Late last week, he indicated he might go further, demanding a list of all monies the state and federal government award Travis County, which total $10 million. He also said he would seek to remove Hernandez from office.

WATCH: Abbott discusses ‘sanctuary cities’ on Fox News

Although the issue is taking center stage at the state Capitol, other cases — such as the one in San Francisco — highlight a controversy that has continued replaying across the country. They show what many describe as the dilemma county jailers and sheriffs have confronted in crafting local policies governing their cooperation with ICE:

• To what degree should county jails be used as a dragnet to find those who might be in the country illegally? Especially when inmates are accused of minor crimes, such as not paying a traffic ticket?

• Should counties shoulder the financial burden to house those inmates, even if their pending local case is resolved or the suspects post bail?

• How do local jailers balance the need for public safety and the rights of an inmate, particularly in light of court rulings that found extended stays for immigration checks violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections that require probable cause for holding a suspect?

With no clear federal regulations or laws, sheriffs and jailers across America have been left to enact local policies that vary from state to state, county to county.

That lack of uniformity might soon change. In an attempt to remove the issue from local discretion, President Donald Trump last week issued an executive order mandating that counties fully comply with ICE. And in Texas, Abbott and other lawmakers also are exploring a new law that would require a similar level of cooperation among sheriffs, penalizing them with fines and possibly removing them from office if they don’t.

Dragnet draws objections

Federal agents began teaming up with county jail officials across the nation almost a decade ago to crack down on illegal immigration.

They stepped up those efforts as part of the Secure Communities program created under former President George W. Bush. Officials have said it was primarily intended to identify the most serious criminals who might be in the country illegally.

Here’s how it works: When a person is booked into jail, the inmate’s name and fingerprints are loaded into a federal database scoured by ICE agents in pursuit of undocumented immigrants. If they want to further investigate these inmates, they ask sheriffs to hold them until they confirm their status.

If ICE decides to initiate deportation proceedings, the inmates are moved to federal detention facilities, where their immigration cases are heard before a judge, who can order them to be deported or released.

The effort was initially well-received by many, but it soon prompted controversy.

Many in local law enforcement complain that honoring such detainers clouds the perception of municipal police — immigrants who could be valuable witnesses in a case, for instance, won’t step forward because they think detectives are operating collaboratively with ICE.

Critics cite an array of other objections, too.

“ICE’s use of detainers to imprison people without due process and, in many cases, without any charges pending or probable cause of any violation has raised serious constitutional concerns,” the American Civil Liberties Union declares on its website.

The organization also reports that local departments shoulder the costs of housing such inmates for the extra time and that a 2012 study found that Los Angeles County taxpayers spent over $26 million a year on such ICE detainers.

Yet proponents contend the use of detainers keeps communities safer, identifying and deporting people who have likely already violated federal immigration laws. They also point out that those people wouldn’t have come to the attention of ICE had they not gotten arrested and accused of violating other laws.

The issue has led to polarized emotions in Travis County for nearly a decade.

In 2008, former Sheriff Greg Hamilton announced that he would permit ICE agents to have working quarters inside the jail, allowing them access 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Immediately, the number of detainers skyrocketed, and Hamilton faced harsh criticism from groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition. The Travis County Democratic Party also has passed resolutions decrying participation in Secure Communities.

Of the nearly 10,000 ICE detainers placed on Travis County inmates in the past 10 years, more than half were for people charged with only one misdemeanor, an American-Statesman analysis last fall found. Driving while intoxicated was by far the most common offense attached to a detainer. A single unspecified traffic offense was enough for ICE to file detainers on 381 individuals.

A recent Statesman examination of that same data found that only 117 – 1.3 percent – of ICE detainers would have been honored under Hernandez’s policy based on their criminal charges. The analysis doesn’t take into account inmates who might have already been convicted of any of the narrow slate of charges Hernandez said she will accept.

Over the past year, the issue dominated the race for Travis County sheriff.

During last year’s campaign, Hernandez’s opponent, Joe Martinez, vowed he would work closely with ICE, handing over every inmate flagged by the agency, and he dubbed Hernandez “Sanctuary Sally” in mailers to voters.

Abbott has also made the issue top on his agenda. Well before Hernandez’s policy, he said in 2015 that he might cut access to millions of dollars in criminal justice grants to counties refusing to fully comply with ICE.

He also has sparred with Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who received a similarly terse letter from Abbott about state funding. Valdez had enacted a similar policy to Hernandez’s.

Raising the stakes

Elsewhere nationally, the handling of ICE detainers has varied — and, until now, often with few consequences to local officials who don’t cooperate with the federal government.

For instance, five years ago, Cook County commissioners in Chicago passed an ordinance allowing most inmates to be freed even if they have an ICE detainer. They said they did so because of the cost in housing them — an estimated $15 million annually.

But in the past week, the issue of ICE cooperation has swept the nation under the president’s executive order.

The mayor of Miami issued an order last week requiring authorities to hold inmates on behalf of the federal government, citing the potential loss of federal funds. But other mayors have vowed to continue fighting, including those in Boston and San Francisco.

The city of Austin has attempted to avoid that political spotlight, despite the issues confronting county leaders. Mayor Steve Adler said nothing in the executive order caused him to believe Austin would be labeled a “sanctuary city.” Police here have cooperated with federal authorities when asked, and no federal law currently requires them to act as immigration authorities, he said. Austin police don’t routinely investigate or question a person’s status when they are connected to crimes.

“I’m comfortable that we’re not violating state or federal law, and we’re making sure to take the advice of our public safety professionals,” Adler said.

But Trump’s order also appears to hit the reset button on an ICE program known as “287(g).” It essentially allows ICE to deputize local law enforcement agents to carry out federal immigration laws and begin the deportation process on their own, according to Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan research nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies.

Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley said he is opposed to participating in the program.

“Successful and effective law enforcement at the local level requires a strong community relationship built on a foundation of trust between the entire community and department,” Manley said in an emailed statement. “If local law enforcement agencies are tasked with enforcing federal immigration law, this trust will break down and there will be segments within our communities that are left less safe.”

For now, Travis County leaders are joining Hernandez and support her policy. She said she plans to persist in putting it in place, but acknowledged in a round of media interviews late Friday that new laws could impact her policy — and that as a person who enforces the law, she will follow any legislative change.

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