By Philip Jankowski and Tony Plohetski
Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday said he would work to oust Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez if she doesn't fully cooperate with federal immigration officials' requests to hand over jail inmates thought to be undocumented immigrants.
Abbott had previously said he will strip state grant money from Travis County if Hernandez doesn't change her recently announced policy that curtails cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But on Fox News, Abbott went further Wednesday, saying, "We will remove her from office."
"We are working on laws that will, one, ban sanctuary cities, remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities, impose criminal penalties as well as financial penalties," Abbott said.
Hernandez has refused several requests for comment since she announced last week that she would greatly limit her office's compliance with immigration "detainers," or requests by ICE officials to hold suspected undocumented immigrants at the Travis County Jail before possible deportation. Hernandez's policy, which would take effect Feb. 1, would also end ICE agents' unfettered access to the jail.
Hernandez has said ICE's practice of using local jails as a tool to deport undocumented immigrants divides local law enforcement from an important segment of the community who should feel comfortable reporting crimes.
At a news conference held Wednesday by the Workers Defense Project and Austin's Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to condemn Abbott's comments, an undocumented immigrant, who identified himself only as "Felix" because of his legal status, said fear of deportation prevents immigrants like himself from going to the police for help.
"We don't have driver's licenses, so we worry that for the slightest offense we could end up in the database and then be subject to deportation," Felix said through an interpreter. "It's something that's always in the back of your mind."
Once, when he was assaulted and robbed, he didn't report it to police, said Felix, a Kyle resident from Mexico who has done roofing and construction work in Austin for 15 years.
Abbott's comments came hours before President Donald Trump took action targeting so-called sanctuary cities, or municipalities that have adopted policies to protect undocumented immigrants. Trump said he would cut federal money to those communities.
It was unclear what funds, if any, could be cut from Travis County if that policy is enacted. In the previous fiscal year, Travis County received about $10 million in direct and pass-through funds from the federal government, according to county officials.
On Monday, Abbott sent a letter threatening to cut off an estimated $2 million in state criminal justice grants to Travis County.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt wrote to Abbott detailing the local programs that receive the state funds, which include specialized courts for veterans, family drug court, prostitute prevention and drug court and a juvenile probation program for children who have experienced trauma.
"The grants serve women, children, families and veterans," Eckhardt said. "They are unrelated to immigration, and none are under the management of the sheriff's office."
Hernandez's fellow Democrats rushed to defend the former Travis County constable and her ICE policy.
"Threatening Sheriff Hernandez with removal from office and withholding much-needed funding from the county is a vast overreach of executive authority," said a letter to Abbott signed by state Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard, Celia Israel and Eddie Rodriguez. "We respectfully urge you to allow the sheriff of Travis County to do her job."
Ousting elected official?
Abbott has several avenues to potentially remove Hernandez from office.
Potter County Attorney Scott Brumley, who is a state expert in Texas law concerning the removal of public officials, said Abbott and lawmakers could change the local government code to stipulate that sheriffs must honor ICE requests and explicitly say how they must do so. They can make the refusal to comply with that law grounds for removal, he said.
"They can define what cooperation means if they want to," he said. "When you want to make a point, the statute is usually written with very clear directions."
Lawmakers also could use a provision in the Texas Constitution to try to boot Hernandez or any other sheriff who doesn't comply with the federal government.
The state constitution already allows the removal of an elected official if they are found by a jury to be "incompetent," meaning that they are careless or ignorant of their official duty, or for any official misconduct, which is defined as an "unlawful act" related to their official duties.
Use of that provision would require a citizen -- which could include a citizen involved in government -- to file a motion with the courts, and then there would be a hearing before a jury.
Under her new policy, Hernandez said she will honor ICE detainers only in cases in which a suspect has been charged with capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or human smuggling or if federal agents get a court order or an arrest warrant.
"The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement," Hernandez said in a YouTube video posted Friday. "Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers."
All 20 Republican state senators signed their own letter Wednesday to Hernandez that called her policy a "reckless and blatant political stunt." The senators said they are prepared to act quickly to pass a Senate bill to punish so-called sanctuary cities.
In a conference call with city leaders in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar also defended Hernandez.
"She is not violating the law in any way under her policies, just as the city of Austin is not violating the law in any way under ours," he said. "It's still not very clear, besides an election, how or why the governor is recklessly threatening to remove our elected officials for trying to serve and protect our communities."
(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas