After the immense turnout at the Women’s March on Austin and around the world on January 21, along with the One Resistance Rally and Protest, the mood in the capital city was optimistically progressive. An estimated 50,000 supporters of human rights, equality, healthcare and multiple other causes of social justice raised their voices in what was the largest march in Texas history, according to event organizers. The uplifting atmosphere continued as Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez released her plan to limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Travis County Jail just days later.
The announcement was a direct response to community organizing and brought the Travis County Sheriff’s Office policy in line with what Travis County residents voted for in November. The issue of immigration detainer policy was a key factor in the 2016 Travis County Sheriff’s race.
“The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement,” Hernandez said. “Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers.”
The policy was particularly timely as Donald Trump assumed the presidency, having promised to deport two to three million immigrants during his first year in office, and to increase use of federal charges that criminalize the act of migration to manufacture the so-called “criminals” he wants to deport.
Immigrant community members praised the announcement.
“We have arrived at this point where we’ve not only convinced the people but also our leaders to make a change regarding the decisions that harm our immigrant community,” ICE Out of Austin organizer Carmen Zuvieta said.
The struggle to end deportations from the Travis County Jail goes back to the implementation of the Secure Communities deportation program in 2009, and former Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s cooperation with ICE, even at the cost of millions of dollars to Travis County taxpayers in increased time immigrants spent in the jail. At the peak of deportations from Travis County, Hamilton’s policy made Austin’s deportation rate one of the highest in the country, with an average of 19 people deported per week.
Right as the progressive victory came to be, Governor Greg Abbott’s office released a memo depriving any county that does not honor ICE detainer requests of all state grant funding. The measure could hold hostage funding for social services provided by the county, such as services for victims of domestic violence. However, honoring detainers under the massive deportation program planned by the Trump administration could be even more costly. At the peak of deportations in Travis County from 2012-2013, detainers cost the county between $3.8 million and $7.3 million, more than the $1.8 million per year that the county stands to lose in state funding.
Days later, the Governor went on to state on a Fox News interview that he would have Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez removed from office if she does not rescind a policy that would limit compliance with federal immigration authorities.
“Neither Governor Abbott nor the Legislature have any authority to remove a duly elected Sheriff, whose office is established by the Texas Constitution,” Congressman Lloyd Doggett stated. “The Governor shows contempt for both the Texas Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.”
Abbott insists Texas sheriffs such as Hernandez must comply with so-called ICE detainers, which are requests to allow federal agents to further investigate whether a person who has been arrested and booked into jail is in the country legally.
“I respect the job of our state leaders, but I will not allow fear and misinformation to be my guiding principles as a leader sworn to protect this community,” Sheriff Hernandez responded to the Governor’s threats. “The voters, who elected state leaders and me, expect and deserve a collaborative effort to come up with solutions to this very complex issue.”
The Sheriff’s new policy will also face challenges at the Texas Legislature, where so-called anti-sanctuary cities bill SB4 has been introduced, with a matching bill in the House. Implications include providing individual discretion to police officers to act in an immigration enforcement capacity, leading to racial profiling by rogue officers and encouraging “stop and frisk” policies, interfering with local law enforcement’s authority to set their own public safety priority, and inviting lawsuits against local government for friendly immigrant policies and/or practices, “written or unwritten.”
The tension continued to intensify as President Donald J. Trump signed a number of executive orders against border, immigrant and refugee communities in late January. As stated by the Border Network for Human Rights, the executive orders aim to extend the criminalization of immigrants to put millions of American families, workers, students, and communities at risk of mass deportation; call for tripling the number of ICE agents and add an additional 5,000 CBP agents; suspend refugee admittance for four months and pander to Islamophobia by barring immigration from certain countries; seek to punish local communities for working to ensure that their approaches to public safety include protecting immigrant communities from crime; and continue his commitment to building a wall symbolizing American contempt for Mexico, Mexicans, and border communities, but which offers no substantial constructive contribution toward any policy goal.
Several pro-immigration leaders around the state issued statements in light of the news.
“Today’s Trump directives mark the start of his mass-deportation crusade and make clear that he will try to rule through race-based terror and criminalization,” Advocacy Director of United We Dream and DACA beneficiary, Greisa Martinez, said in a speech delivered in a press conference. “Trump announced that he will increase the size of the deportation force which took my father and broke my family apart, he said that he’s going to build a wall to keep families like mine out. He would create a militarized zone along our border where our communities are under constant watch and religious screenings to keep Muslims out.”
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz expressed his disappointment in Trump’s decision without consultation with border leaders. “It’s a sad day in Laredo, Texas,” Saenz said. “And frankly the entire border. We respect him (Trump) as our president, but we respectfully disagree with this notion of a wall.”
Juanita Valdez-Cox, Executive Director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, reinforced the repercussions that a border wall could bring to immigrants, the economy and the environment. “The walls already constructed have taken land from property owners, carved up wildlife habitat, and pushed migrants to cross in increasingly more dangerous sections of the border,” Valdez-Cox assured. “The wall sends a message to visitors, our economic partners, and family members on both sides of the border: you are not welcome here.”
Austin’s and Texas’ governments are at odds as the blueberry in the tomato soup continues to fight for its principles.
“Austin must not back down on our principles of justice, public safety, and constitutional rights,” District 4 Council Member Greg Casar commented. “We are not alone. Cities across the country are refusing to be blackmailed by anti-immigrant leaders. We will protect our cities’ residents, resources, and the ability granted to us by Texas voters to govern responsibly. History is on our side, the law is on our side, and we will fight for our principles to the end.”