Austin Area Becomes Immigrant 'Sanctuary' As Trump Inaugurated

Texas governor threatens to cut state funds hours after the new policy is announced.

AUSTIN, Texas ― The Travis County Sheriff’s Office announced a new policy Friday of limiting cooperation with detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants.

The changes, which make Austin a so-called sanctuary jurisdiction for deportable migrants, puts incoming Sheriff Sally Hernandez at odds with both President Donald Trump and Republicans in the Texas Legislature who are pushing bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants. And just hours after Hernandez’s announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to cut state funding to Travis County.

The governor’s office controls $1.8 million in state grants dedicated to Travis County, according to The Austin American-Statesman. The county has a total budget of almost $1 billion.

The sheriff’s announcement said the new policy is aimed at helping the county protect all residents “regardless of their immigration status, and to ensure the continued participation of victims and witnesses regardless of their immigration status.”

Starting Feb. 1, when the Travis County Sheriff’s Office receives a request from ICE to detain an undocumented immigrant in its custody, it will be honored only if the person has been charged with or convicted of one of a short list of serious crimes, including murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking. But the county will honor ICE detainers if accompanied by a warrant.

“Under the previous detainer policy, an inmate who was charged with a crime was deported as soon as he posted bond, or before his court date,” Hernandez said in a video posted to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office website explaining the new policy. “As such, the inmate never went before a court, the victim and their family never had their day in court, and the inmate’s criminal record would grow. This system does not foster public safety…. Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE.”

Bob Libal, the director of the immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, cheered the Travis County policy, describing it as the culmination of years of pressure from activists.

“This sends a really loud and clear message that Travis County is against the mass deportation of our community members,” Libal told The Huffington Post. “And that is an incredibly important message to send today as Donald Trump is inaugurated, promising mass deportations and human rights violations in the immigrant community.”

The group is still pressing for further limitations to ICE holds and to restrict local police from asking about immigration status, however.

Supporters of limiting ICE holds contend that using local law enforcement agencies to help with federal immigration undermines trust in immigrant communities, drains local resources and unfairly ensnares victims of crime into the deportation process. In cases of domestic abuse, for example, police sometimes arrest both parties after an altercation.

The courts have also ruled against using ICE detainers as the only basis to keep undocumented immigrants in local custody as a violation of the 4th Amendment, which protects against unlawful searches, seizures and detention. Still, it remains routine in many counties.

No standard definition exists to describe a “sanctuary” jurisdiction, though declining to reflexively honor ICE detainers would be a baseline. Many conservatives view any jurisdictions that limit cooperation with ICE as “sanctuaries.”

Sanctuary cities have become a flashpoint in the immigrant rights movement, as a growing number of liberal localities work to find ways to push back against an increasingly enforcement-minded, Republican-controlled federal government. While Democrats have generally taken up the movement’s cause, it originally flourished in response to deportations in the Obama administration.

On the campaign trail, Trump railed against sanctuary cities, pledging to withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that refuse to honor ICE’s request to detain undocumented immigrants on the federal government’s behalf.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the Texas Senate, says he will prioritize a bill to strip state funds from jurisdictions that decline to comply with ICE holds.

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