Late last month, a group of immigration activists met Austin Mayor Steve Adler with demands that the Austin Police Department no longer cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which would make Austin what conservatives have dubbed a “sanctuary city.” The Texas Tribune defines a sanctuary city as “municipalities that have established policies prohibiting police officers from enforcing immigration laws or cooperating with federal immigration officials.” Generally, when local police departments make a criminal arrest of someone who is in the country illegally, ICE can put in a detainer request for the department to hold the person for a period of up to 48 hours, giving ICE ample time to pick them up.
Even though Austin has frequently been named a sanctuary city, the activists left the meeting with Adler disappointed. Although the mayor promised to work on each situation on a case-by-case basis, he didn’t commit to authoring any policy that would prohibit APD from working with ICE. In fact, the confrontation between the activists and the mayor took place shortly after APD and the Travis County Sheriff’s Department representatives pledged to cooperate with the agency.
So how did Austin and several other Texas cities earn the designation of sanctuary city, even though they don’t seem to exist in the state?
The issue became a national concern when an undocumented immigrant, who’d previously been deported multiple times, shot and killed a woman in California. The suspect had originally been in the custody of ICE, but he’d been turned over to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department because of a drug-related warrant. ICE had requested a detainer, asking to be alerted when he was released, but San Francisco doesn’t honor those requests and later released him. The frustration over the San Francisco shooting carried over to Texas when Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced that she would be handling detainment requests on a case-by-case basis for some minor offenses. This announcement came around the same time that Valdez and Dallas County were hit with a civil rights lawsuit accusing them of holding immigrants for longer periods of time than is constitutional.
That same day, Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a public letter criticizing Valdez’s decision and warned that the state might enact harsher laws or reduce funding for police departments with policies that promote “sanctuary to people in this state illegally.” Valdez responded to Gov. Abbott’s criticism and explained that her new policy hasn’t affected how she handles detainer requests from ICE:
In 2015 we did not have any detainer issued by ICE rejected by the Sheriff’s Department. From January 1, 2015 until today’s date October 26, 2015, we have accepted 1469 detainers from ICE and declined zero. ICE is familiar with our agreement and doesn’t submit a detainer unless it falls into the upper two categories that are designated so in effect we have declined zero.
Still, the governor is putting his support behind SB 185, which aims to ban “sanctuary city” policies in Texas. The bill was introduced in 2014 and has failed to pass twice, but Abbott plans to address it again in 2017. According to the bill and the governor, local police departments and municipalities that don’t cooperate with ICE run the risk of losing state grant funds. For the Austin Police Department, a loss of state funds could mean losing important programs, as KXAN reports:
For example, APD has about $600,000 of total state grants. One of those is a Violence Against Women Act grant, which pays for two temporary counselors and training for all officers in domestic violence services. “If we lost those grants, it would be a tremendous impact on our division and our community,” said Kachina Clark, who runs APD’s Victim Services.
That would be a quite a loss to APD and Austinites—if Austin was actually a sanctuary city. The immigration activists who asked Adler to adopt sanctuary city policies certainly know that Austin isn’t one. And Dallas, which spurred Abbott’s involvement against such policies, isn’t one either. In fact, many immigration activists were surprised by Abbott’s letter criticizing Valdez when they’ve often viewed her policies as harsh. For people such as Caroline Canizales, the deportation defense director for United We Dream, Valdez’s stance on immigration is especially disappointing considering that “she’s a Latina” and “that she comes from an immigrant background.”
So if cities such as Austin and Dallas are cooperating with ICE, how are these cities still under the threat of losing state funding? Sanctuary city concerns might be legitimate issues in places like San Francisco, but things aren’t the same in Texas. San Francisco not honoring detainer requests is not the same as Dallas reducing the amount of requests they honor, especially if their new policy change is actually in line with the Department of Homeland Security’s Priority Enforcement Program, which focuses deportation efforts on people with criminal offenses, not civil ones. As Matt Simpson, a strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, explained to the Associated Press, “I’m not sure Texas has any sanctuary cities.”
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a consistent understanding of what the phrase even means. During an interim Senate committee hearing on border security in December of last year, Deputy Attorney General Brantley Starr told the committee that “there is no one defined definition that we know of in the law [of a sanctuary city].”
According to Major Wes Priddy, the chief administrator for Travis County jails, there’s also some confusion over the appropriate role of local police departments when it comes to immigration. “I think there are some people who still believe that the sheriff’s office is working as immigration agents and that we are actively picking people up because they are in the country illegally, that we are actively involved in deporting people,” he told the Texas Tribune.
Local police departments aren’t performing raids or asking for legal status without prompting. They aren’t ICE, after all. It’s only after someone is arrested for criminal activity and then matched to ICE’s database through FBI fingerprint background checks that immigration issues arise, and then ICE becomes involved.
There aren’t many reliable sources for listing sanctuary cities in Texas, and the few websites that do provide a sort of database don’t share consistent qualification methods. The map of sanctuary cities across the country provided by a website called the Center for Immigration Studies and a post by Jessica Vaughan cites “government documents [she has] obtained through FOIA requests and other channels, and independent research” as the basis for the over 300 locations flagged. According to that map, Dallas County and Travis County are both sanctuary cities. Another website lists several other Texas cities, but their primary qualification for making the lists seems to be any presence of immigrants, whether or not they’re involved in criminal activity. This section of a submitted post is part of the reason League City made it onto their list:
This is a rather old picture of illegals standing in front of a city EMS station. Off to the right is the League City Police Department. And just down the street from the LCPD Building is the City Hall. This picture was taken later on in the morning when the crowd was a little thin, because there are not as many in the Google pic. This picture was about 10am. “Best Guess.” Mayor Randall & Chief Jez believe that these law breakers have the constitutional right to a Peaceful Assemble regardless of their, “Status.” They refuse to do anything about it. Didn’t mean to write you guys a book, but this has become out of hand. GOD Bless America, AND->HELP!!
If police not actively harassing groups of people local residents suspect to be in the country illegally makes an area a “sanctuary” for immigrants, it’s no wonder the bill in the Senate has failed several times. It’s probably hard to pass legislation that’s trying to fix a problem Texas doesn’t really have.