In the border state of Texas, the Republican governor and state Legislature are promising to combat a new trend since the election of Donald Trump, in which cities and localities vow to limit how much they assist federal authorities with removing immigrants living illegally in their communities.
Sally Hernandez, the Democratic sheriff-elect in Travis County, home to the liberal state capital of Austin, ran on a platform opposing cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when it seeks to deport illegal immigrants held in the county jail.
“The sheriff’s office will not be part of a deportation force that sacrifices hundreds and thousands of people, our neighbors, to a broken federal immigration system,” Hernandez said during a Nov. 17 press conference.
She and other city and county elected officials told reporters they wanted to address residents’ “safety concerns” since Trump’s election.
If Hernandez fulfills her pledge, Austin would become the state’s first official sanctuary city, a move that would put her at odds with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican-led Legislature. Both plan to pursue policies punishing localities that won’t help the federal government enforce immigration law.
“Governor Abbott looks forward to signing a bill banning sanctuary cities in the state of Texas,”John Wittman, Abbott’s press secretary, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
The fight in Texas shows how states and cities are defining their own policies in anticipation of Trump’s fulfilling his aggressive campaign promises to crack down on immigration enforcement—including his vow to block federal funding from sanctuary cities.
Local governments of cities such as the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Boston have said they will not change policies that limit their cooperation with immigration-related requests from the federal government.
The Daily Signal previously reported that Trump has broad tools to encourage localities to play a more proactive role in immigration enforcement.
Republican governors and legislators, emboldened by Trump’s victory, also have ways to coerce cities and counties into working with ICE.
Last year, Abbott announced a policy of withholding certain criminal justice grants from sheriff’s offices that do not fulfill requests from ICE to help federal authorities deport illegal immigrants in local custody.
Wittman said that since the policy’s implementation in November 2015, the governor has not blocked any funding because all local jurisdictions in Texas complied with his order.
But that hasn’t stopped state Republican lawmakers from trying to pass laws punishing sanctuary cities.
Last month, state Sen. Charles Perry filed legislation that would deny state grants to local jurisdictions that do not help the federal government enforce immigration law.
Previous versions of the bill failed to make it out of the Senate, but Perry’s latest legislation is supported by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also a Republican.
“I have no doubt this will be one of the earliest bills passed by the Senate this session [beginning Jan. 10],” Perry told The Daily Signal in an interview. “Federal and state politicians should have a remedy of reducing or removing discretionary funding if local jurisdictions are found to have policies explicitly harboring criminal aliens.”
Yet Trump’s victory has inspired some local Texas leaders to guard against his potential policies.
In Harris County, where Houston is located, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, campaigned on ending his county’s participation in an ICE program known as 287(g).
That program permits local law enforcement to alert federal authorities when they have suspected illegal immigrants in the county jail, and ask about the immigration status of those they arrest.
Javier Salazar, the newly elected Democratic sheriff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, also hinted during his campaign that he would forbid deputies from inquiring about immigration status.
The 287(g) program is controversial, and there are just 32 jurisdictions across the country currently involved with it, but Trump has expressed support for bolstering these partnerships.
In 2012, the Obama administration scrapped an aspect of the program that essentially deputized state and local law enforcement as immigration agents who are allowed to make arrests related to immigration status.
Trump has called 287(g) a “popular” program that he would like to “expand and revitalize.”
“I expect the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security to strengthen and expand the 287(g) program,” said David Inserra, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, who supports the program. “Because that program is a memo of understanding from DHS to state and local governments, there is nothing holding the Trump administration back from expanding 287(g) to as far as the budget will allow, and they could request more funding for it.”
Immigration experts have speculated that Trump could bring back another contentious local enforcement program, called Secure Communities, as a way of expanding deportations.
In Secure Communities, federal immigration agents asked local law enforcement agencies to keep illegal immigrants in custody for 48 hours longer than usual so they could be picked up and deported. These requests were known as detainers.
The Obama administration revamped Secure Communities in 2014, asking that local authorities notify ICE only when they plan to release someone from jail whom the government seeks to deport.
It also limited who ICE targets for deportation to illegal immigrants considered to be threats to national security and public safety, those convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors, and recent border crossers.
Adrian Garcia, a Democrat who was Harris County’s sheriff from 2009 to 2015, said local law enforcement is not legally obligated to help ICE enforce immigration law.
Garcia warns that state politicians using the threat of withholding money to encourage local assistance with immigration enforcement are putting communities at risk.
“It makes no damn sense, you would hinder agencies from doing their job and catching the people we’re all worried about,” Garcia told The Daily Signal in an interview, adding:
This is a bogus position by the governor and others. A sanctuary implies if you do something wrong, nothing happens to you. In Harris County, if you hurt somebody or rob somebody, you go to jail and you are held accountable. There is no sanctuary in that. So they ought to let law enforcement do their jobs and decide on policies best for their communities.
But A.J. Louderback, the Republican sheriff of Jackson County and legislative director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said law enforcement shouldn’t risk releasing people ICE wants to deport.
“Any sheriff who has a jail needs to work with the federal government on deporting criminal foreign-born individuals who are in the country illegally,” Louderback told The Daily Signal in an interview. “I hope sincerely that each of the new sheriffs that come in will do their job and take their constitutional oath seriously. Our responsibility is to protect our public from criminal activity.”