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Texas Cuts Funding to Travis County, an Immigrant Sanctuary

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday made good on a promise to cut off state grant funding for Travis County criminal justice programs over Sheriff Sally Hernandez's new policy of refusing to cooperate with all federal immigration detainers.

By Mike Ward Houston Chronicle

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday made good on a promise to cut off state grant funding for Travis County criminal justice programs over Sheriff Sally Hernandez's new policy of refusing to cooperate with all federal immigration detainers.

Hours after Hernandez's new policy took effect, Abbott halted more than $1.5 million in criminal justice grants that go through his office, less another $300,000 that aides said already had been transferred and spent.

Ten days ago, Hernandez announced a new policy that her department no longer would honor most warrantless requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain jailed suspects who were in the United States illegally, except those charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault and human smuggling.

Abbott had threatened to cut the grant funding if Hernandez did not rescind her policy -- and at one point had suggested she should be removed from office.

His subsequent termination of funding set off immediate political shock waves, with Democrats blasting the move as illegal bullying and Republican lawmakers promising to quickly pass a new law to make so-called "sanctuary cities" illegal in Texas. A vote for approval in the Senate could come as soon as next week.

Hernandez insisted she is following state and federal law and said she has no plans to change her policy. She ran for office on a platform that included enacting the new policy.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in a terse letter to Abbott said the county will work to replace the state money that funds drug-diversion and veterans courts, family-violence therapy and juvenile-justice programs.

"I am confident Sheriff Hernandez's policy is well within the current law. I am certain you have come to the same conclusion; else you would not be seeking to change the current state law to put all Texas sheriffs in the service (of) the United States Department of Homeland Security," Eckhardt wrote.

The fight between Abbott and the capital county has drawn national attention to the sanctuary city issue in a week when President Donald Trump suggested a cutoff of federal funding to locales that refuse to cooperate on federal immigration enforcement.

Passage of a law banning sanctuary cities could impact dozens of other Texas cities that are said to be considering policies similar to Travis County's as a protest against the push for an immigration crackdown by Trump and other state Republicans.

Travis County's policy differs from those elsewhere in Texas, like Harris County, where officials have had cooperative agreements with federal immigration officials to detain immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally when they are released from jail under what is known as the 287(g) program. While running for office, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez ran on a platform to end the county's 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said the department is reviewing the agreement.

Democrats allege bullying

Before his rift with Travis County, Abbott in 2015 tangled with Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, over her policy to honor immigration detainers only on a case-by-case basis. She later agreed to honor all detainers.

Democrats on Wednesday blasted Abbott's move to cut off grant funding to Travis County. U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, labeled the governor's decision "an unlawful act of intimidation" that he likened to bullying.

"This lawless intimidation puts politics over Texas veterans and public safety," Doggett said. "Its vindictiveness is more like Russian President Putin's authoritarian regime than our democracy. His anti-immigrant hysteria damages local law enforcement and our entire community."

Most members of the Travis County delegation in the Legislature also criticized the decision. The exception was state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, the lone Republican in the group, who said she supports a ban on sanctuary cities.

"We have a clear message to our law enforcement officers: obey the rule of law, respect the detainers or else there are dire consequences," she said.

Despite her protest of Abbott's move to block funding, Eckhardt acknowledged that the county would obey a change in state law that bars Hernandez's policy.

Senate supporters of a ban on sanctuary cities immediately announced they will fast-track a vote in the upper chamber to change the law, starting with a public hearing on Thursday. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said the hearing could draw hundreds of people wishing to testify.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said his Senate Bill 4 will ban sanctuary cities by prohibiting law enforcement agencies from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agencies.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin said Abbott's decision to cut off grants would hurt participants in various local justice programs, not the sheriff's office.

"Not a single dollar of the (Governor's) Criminal Justice Division grants are allocated to or administered by the Travis County Sheriff's Office," said Rodriguez. "Instead, these resources are used to help veterans get back on their feet, support victims of family violence, reunite children with parents in recovery and reach our youth before they become involved with the criminal justice system in ways that will affect their entire lives."

Perry said he was unmoved by those pleas because Hernandez is the one responsible for the cutoff of funding because she's the one who decided not to follow the law.

"The bill is not intended to define what a sanctuary city is," Perry said. "You can have a sanctuary city that provides charity. ... This bill only deals with allowing agencies that do not enforce the law. That's where they cross the line. ... If you don't respect the rule of law, there will be consequences."

Perry said the revised bill includes civil penalties for violators.

Passage of ban likely

In his State of the State speech, where he detailed his priorities for the Legislature during their five-month session, Abbott on Tuesday designated a ban on sanctuary cities as an emergency item so it can be passed quickly and signed into law.

Perry said his revised bill protects crime witnesses, to address an issue Hernandez cited as a reason she adopted her policy. She said immigration detainers can make it more difficult for local police to investigate crimes in immigrant communities because of a fear of retaliation or deportation by federal authorities.

While more than a dozen senators -- Republicans and Democrats -- predicted Wednesday that the ban will sail through the Senate, they and several House leaders say it could face a tougher route to passage because of opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans. Even so, both sides said Wednesday that the measure likely will be passed in some form, with support from Texas' top three leaders.

(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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