President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security seemed to be a public relations gift for Governor Greg Abbott. The governor has called for a statewide ban on so-called sanctuary cities that fail to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and a DHS report released on Monday—the first of ongoing weekly reports—highlighted jurisdictions across the country that refused to honor immigration detainers. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the agency reported that Travis County led the nation in the number of immigration detention requests declined by a local law enforcement agency. But then Abbott jumped to the conclusion that all 142 of the Travis County unauthorized immigrants had been released onto the streets, when, in fact, the report does not claim the inmates were freed.
Citing the ICE report, Abbott’s office said there were 206 instances nationally during the first week of February where law enforcement agencies had declined ICE detainers, with 70 percent of the declines coming from Travis County. His news release said the undocumented immigrants had been “released from custody” and were a danger to society.
“Today’s report from (the Department of Homeland Security) is deeply disturbing and highlights the urgent need for a statewide sanctuary city ban in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement. “The Travis County Sheriff’s decision to deny ICE detainer requests and release back into our communities criminals charged with heinous crimes—including sexual offenses against children, domestic violence and kidnapping—is dangerous and should be criminal in itself. Texas will act to put an end to sanctuary policies that put the lives of our citizens at risk.”
But that’s not at all what the DHS document revealed. The report merely stated that Travis County had declined ICE requests to detain certain undocumented immigrants when they had either served their time or made bail. All the declines occurred on February 1, the week that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez adopted her new policy of limited cooperation with ICE. Three of the immigrants had been inmates of the Travis County jail since 2015. Law enforcement agencies typically do not release inmates to ICE custody until local criminal cases are resolved, and those who are convicted of felonies are transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to serve prison sentences. A Texas Tribune report last year said 4.6 percent of the prison inmates are doing time before being transferred to ICE for possible deportation.
Travis County Sheriff Major Wes Priddy said that because the ICE report did not include names, identifying the specific inmates involved is difficult, “but it doesn’t mean we just opened the doors and let them out.” And though Priddy said Hernandez’s policy initially was to only release inmates to ICE in cases of capital murder, murder, rape, and human trafficking, by mid-February it had been expanded to include all aggravated felonies and crimes against children and the eldery. Priddy said contrary to what ICE has reported, Travis County officials notify ICE whenever a detainer is declined. “We cooperate with ICE a lot,” Priddy said. He said the office thought it was an interesting coincidence that ICE chose to begin its weekly reports on the very week that Travis County rolled out its new policy.
Two other Texas counties highlighted said the report was either wrong or misleading. Bastrop County was recorded as declining three detainers on prisoners and Williamson County reportedly declined four. Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook said his inmates were transferred to Travis County, and the detainers ICE had placed went with them. Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody issued a statement that the ICE report was “misleading,” adding that the undocumented immigrants arrested in his county that had ICE detainers on them had been transferred to another jurisdiction, “where we believe ICE detainers are not honored.”
Abbott has withheld about $1.5 million state funds from Travis County because it is not fully cooperating with ICE. The governor also is pressing the Legislature for a “sanctuary cities” bill to financially punish law enforcement agencies that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. The bill already has passed the Senate and is under consideration by the House.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, in her own statement, said federal officials enforce immigration laws and Travis County is charged with enforcing state criminal laws. “If a person is suspected of rape, murder, or any other serious crime, Travis County will bring them to justice irrespective of where the accused was born,” she said. “The crime rate in Travis County has steadily declined in recent years, dropping by approximately 30 percent since 2007. We are proud to have the lowest crime rate of any other major urbanized area in Texas.”