Austin Is Fighting the Texas Governor to Remain a Sanctuary for Undocumented Immigrants

Travis County sheriff Sally Hernandez is locked in a battle with Governor Greg Abbott over an issue that's dividing the state.
February 3, 2017, 3:16pm
Photo by Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP

When President Donald Trump issued his executive order threatening to take away funding from "sanctuary cities" that didn't turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, it was just that—a threat. The order didn't actually defund any jurisdiction. But Texas governor Greg Abbott, apparently emboldened by the move, this week stripped all criminal justice funding from Austin's Travis County—and is rushing ahead legislation to punish all sanctuary communities even more aggressively.

Travis County sheriff Sally Hernandez had just implemented a popular new policy pledging not to hand undocumented residents over to federal immigration authorities unless they had committed a serious crime. In response, Abbott cut $1.5 million in state and federal criminal justice grants to the county—funds for preventive services totally unrelated to immigration enforcement, and that local officials fear will puncture the community's socials safety net.

The funding cuts will mostly impact outreach for family violence victims, prostitution prevention services, support for parents in addiction recovery, juvenile probation court, and veterans court, according to documents obtained by VICE.

"When the state cuts off our ability to do business, it is cutting off its ability to govern," Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "None of the programs currently funded have anything to do with immigration or are under managerial control of the sheriff's department… These are real people in Travis County who are being protected by these programs."

Eckhardt, who stands by Hernandez's policy along with Austin's mayor, city council, and the majority of its residents—many of whom voted for Hernandez because of her immigration pledge—called the governor's action "foolhardy" and recounted stories of specific people who had been aided by the programs on the chopping block.

One mother of two left decades of drugs and sex work through the prostitution-prevention program and became a cosmetologist. Another woman, wheelchair-bound because both of her legs were amputated, was able, thanks to help from a violence-prevention case workers, to seek a lifetime protective order from a man who repeatedly raped her.

"Some of these people are both defendants and victims who we were able to take out of a lifetime of criminal activity to be productive members of the community… If funding continues to be pulled from the state and county courts, we'll have no choice but to shift funds away from discretionary to mandatory programs," Eckhardt continued. "That is not good for Travis County residents."

Confronted with the cuts, Sheriff Hernandez has refused to reverse her stance, and she claimed in an emailed statement that she is "following all state and federal laws, and upholding constitutional rights to due process for all in our criminal justice system."

"It is the intent of our sheriff to stick with this policy," Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County sheriff office, told me.

Austin mayor Steve Adler also defended Hernandez in his state of the city speech this weekend, receiving his only standing ovation for praising the sheriff. And one Travis County resident has already begun an online fundraiser to make up for the cuts. (It's raised less than $1,500 of its $1.5 million goal on Gofundme so far.)

"This community has shown up over and over again in support of the immigrant community," Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin immigrant advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, told me. "It's possible they'll raise the funds."

But Abbott, who warned Hernandez of the cuts in a letter last week, has only begun his fight to step up immigration enforcement around Texas. "Your reckless actions endangering the safety of Texans will provide powerful testimony for the need to strengthen Texas law," he wrote Hernandez. "Texas must enact tough penalties that punish those who would put themselves above the law—and even above the community they purportedly serve."

Abbott declared an "emergency" on sanctuary cities in his state of the state speech Tuesday, pushing the legislature to speed up action on SB4, a bill to ban Texas sanctuary cities. He required the Senate Committee on State Affairs to hold a hearing Thursday on the legislation, which he hopes will pass by the end of next week.

Thursday morning at the Texas State Capitol, the committee took up the bill, as protesters from around the state marched outside and immigration advocates gathered in dismay. Despite popular opposition, especially in liberal Austin, the legislature is likely to rapidly approve the bill, which could deprive sanctuary cities of all state funding. It would also hold law enforcement liable if an immigrant commits a felony within ten years after law enforcement fails to hand him or her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"Immigration lawyers from all over the state were here today, at least 30 of us—and everybody was saying, this is definitely going to pass," Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, a prominent Austin immigration lawyer, told me. "This will have a devastating effect overall for Texas communities in terms of safety. Communities in general will be less safe because officers will have worse relationships with the immigrant community."

The committee voted to move forward on the bill as Thursday night became Friday morning.

After the hearing, Carmen Zuvieta, a leader of the ICE out of Austin campaign, which pushed for Hernandez's policy, told me her community was "terrified" of both the state and federal policies on the horizon. Zuvieta, a mother of three whose husband was deported under Travis County's former sheriff, said SB4 seemed to manipulate non-immigrants into turning against the state's foreign-born population.

"I feel like [Abbott] is threatening certain people so the rest are afraid and don't want to speak up for the immigrants," Zuvieta, 42, told me outside the Capitol, her voice beginning to shake. "This is a means of discrimination under the law. I don't want another family to be tortured like my family has."

As Texas and the federal government begin penalizing sanctuary cities, immigration attorneys insist that their defunding tactics likely won't hold up in court—one issue is that there is no legal definition of a "sanctuary city," which has only been a popular term the past couple of years. Courts have found in the past that it is illegal for jails to hold individuals on immigration detainers, and that law enforcement does not have the responsibility to enforce immigration laws.

"The executive order doesn't say what type of funding will be stripped and it doesn't define what sanctuary is… and the steps [of enforcement] aren't clearly delineated," said Alyson Sincavage, a legislative advocate for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "What you're seeing right now is a state emboldened by Trump's executive order."

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