Undocumented Community Puts Heat on Sheriff Gonzalez to Cut Controversial Policy

Sheriff Gonzalez speaks to groups from United We Dream, Texas Organizing Project, SEIU, and Houston's AFL-CIO labor union.
Sheriff Gonzalez speaks to groups from United We Dream, Texas Organizing Project, SEIU, and Houston's AFL-CIO labor union. Meagan Flynn
Undocumented immigrants and activists for the community took to the steps of the Harris County Sheriff's Office yesterday, calling on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to follow through on a campaign promise to end 287(g), a contract with federal immigration officials that facilitates deportations.

And they could not have chosen a more delicate time to remind the sheriff of that promise.

Sheriffs' cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement became a political issue this week after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced she would significantly reduce cooperation with ICE, leading Governor Greg Abbott to threaten retaliation against her.

The governor not only promised to revoke $1.8 million in criminal justice grants from Travis County should Hernandez fail to fully cooperate with ICE, but also went on Fox News and, remarkably, threatened to remove her from office.

Travis County has an agreement with ICE, called the Priority Enforcement Program, that is similar to the 287(g) program in Harris County.

"We are in a legislative session, and we are working on laws that, one, ban sanctuary cities, remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities, and impose criminal penalties as well as financial penalties," Abbott said on Fox and Friends. "If she doesn't [fully cooperate with ICE], we will remove her from office."

So it's perhaps no wonder, then, that Sheriff Gonzalez did not offer the activists any specifics about his plans to either revise or do away with 287(g), other than to say he is currently reviewing the contract and will announce any changes once his assessment is finished.

"I have to be able to look at this in a responsible way, and any changes have to be done in a responsible way," he said on the steps of the sheriff's office Thursday, warmly greeting some of the United We Dream and Texas Organizing Project activists with hugs and handshakes. "Because at the end of the day, we all have a vested interest to make sure that violent criminals, no matter where they come from, that we still must identify that criminal in the community. But we're also a community of immigrants, and we're sending a message today that, as has always been the case, [targeting immigrants] is not  our focus."
click to enlarge MEAGAN FLYNN
Meagan Flynn

Gonzalez added that he wants immigrants to feel comfortable speaking with deputies, who will not check their immigration status.

Under Sheriff Hernandez's revised immigration policy, the Travis County Jail will only honor ICE immigration detainers placed on inmates charged with capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling. For any other offense, ICE officials will need to obtain a court order or arrest warrant before the jail continues to detain inmates who are free to be released on bond or after their case is adjudicated or dismissed. Holding them any longer, Hernandez said, is a violation of due process rights.

Abbott, however, called Hernandez's new policy a grave threat to public safety, saying it was like playing "political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake." (Yet, for whatever reason, does not view stripping the county of $1.8 million in funds that helps law enforcement and courts as counter to promoting public safety. Beyond threatening to take away this money, it should be noted that the state government otherwise has no involvement in immigration contracts between the federal government and counties.)

Hernandez stood her ground Thursday in the face of Abbott's threats, saying she would "not allow fear and misinformation" to be her guiding principles, the Texas Tribune reported.

Asked if he was considering a policy shift like Hernandez's, Gonzalez did not say. Instead, he reiterated his support for undocumented immigrants and said he planned to continue working with the community. If he is able, he pledged to travel to Austin to testify against the anti-sanctuary cities bill, SB4, or write a letter to lawmakers.

"I hope our legislators do the right thing and know that sanctuary cities [legislation] they are trying to propose is not the right way to do things," the sheriff said. "It sends the wrong message, and it would send us backward."

Correction, January 27, 4:05 p.m. — An earlier version of this article misstated that Travis County was enrolled in the 287(g) program. The sheriff's office has opted into a similar program, called the Priority Enforcement Program, which is what Sheriff Hernandez has limited.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn