In Trumpian fashion, Governor Greg Abbott took to Twitter late Friday to rebuke Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez for adopting a policy that significantly reduces her office's cooperation with federal immigration officials.
"Stiffer penalties coming," he warned.
Those potential penalties arrived on Sheriff Hernandez's desk Monday morning in a letter Abbott addressed to her, threatening to take away $1.8 million in state criminal justice grant money unless Hernandez agrees to fully cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and place immigration detainers on any inmates in her jail whose immigration status is in question.
The partnership between the feds and local law enforcement agencies is otherwise known as the 287(g) program, in which jails facilitate deportation of undocumented immigrants by detaining them until ICE picks them up. It's a partnership Hernandez partially discontinued Friday, and which Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez also said during his campaign that he wanted to eliminate.
Under Hernandez's new policy, the jail would only honor ICE detainers placed on those charged with capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous smuggling of persons. Otherwise, for any other offense, the feds will need a court order or an arrest warrant before the Travis County Jail continues to detain people who are otherwise free to be released on bond or after their case is dismissed. Holding them any longer, Hernandez said, is a violation of due process rights.
Still, even though Hernandez still plans to work with ICE in one way or another, Abbott appears to have construed her policy as total noncompliance with ICE. And for a sheriff who said he wanted to dump the 287(g) program entirely in Harris County, it's possible that the governor's promised retaliation may complicate Gonzalez's plans.
Sheriff Gonzalez made eliminating 287(g) a regular part of his campaign, one that was centered on criminal-justice reform. As his campaign website still states: "It is time for the 287(g) program...to be out of the Harris County jail. Congress must work to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Its failure to do so should not require local agencies to do its work. The current 287(g) program is a strain on valuable police resources and taxpayer’s money. Worse, it is a violation of due process rights and leads to racial profiling, the separation of families and a mistrust of deputies. Harris County deserves better."
Whether Abbott's threats to revoke grant money will factor into Gonzalez's course of action is up in the air; Harris County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said 287(g) is currently under review, and did not offer more information.
According to data from the sheriff's office, the program facilitated the deportation of 167 people in 2015, only a quarter of whom were charged with violent crimes against people. Former Sheriff Ron Hickman, whom Gonzalez defeated at the polls in November, renewed the 287(g) contact with the feds last June, despite intense opposition from immigrant groups. Advocacy groups such as United We Dream argued that, regardless of the sheriff's best intentions to facilitate deportations of only dangerous criminals, the sheriff's involvement with ICE officials causes immigrant communities to fear interacting with law enforcement at all, whether during a routine traffic stop or to report a crime.
This fear was part of the reason Hernandez justified limiting cooperation with ICE, saying in a video statement that witnesses to crimes should not be afraid to step forward, or offer a tip to police, for fear of deportation. "The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement," she said. "Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE. It's absolutely imperative for officers to have the trust of the public during their interaction."
Abbott, however, has viewed her policy as an immediate threat to public safety anyhow, dramatically stating, "it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake."
Despite the fact that 287(g) is a contract exclusively between the feds and local law enforcement agencies, Abbott closed his letter by promising to stick his nose in it even further. Simply taking away $1.8 million in grant money, he said, is not tough enough. In other words, expect to see GOP lawmakers take aim at sheriffs who follow in the footsteps of Hernandez, by writing the sheriffs into legislation barring sanctuary cities in Texas, legislation they have made a priority.
"Texas must enact tough penalties that punish those who would put themselves above the law — and even above the community they purportedly serve," Abbott wrote.
Update, 11:32 a.m. — Sheriff Gonzalez released the following statement Tuesday morning:
“I’ve received a number of questions about the status of the County’s 287(g) contract.
My responsibility as Sheriff is to keep Harris County safe. That includes ensuring that ICE’s operations target only the most dangerous criminals in Harris County while protecting the rights of documented and undocumented families in our community.
I continue to have concerns about 287(g) and its implementation in the Harris County Jail. Yet, any changes to the contract must be made in a responsible way. I am continuing to review all practices that are impacted by the contract to determine the most responsible way forward.
I will provide an update as soon as I complete my review.”