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Why one Texas sheriff fears tougher immigration enforcement will make her city less safe

February 16, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
After President Trump was sworn in, one Texas sheriff made a policy change limiting cooperation with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, fearing that undocumented people won't trust police if they're afraid of being deported. Taking action to make her city a “sanctuary” has drawn criticism and retaliation. William Brangham reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Many restaurants and businesses were closed today for a national strike called A Day Without Immigrants. The closures were an attempt by participants to show how crucial immigrants are to American society.

Of course, as we heard in his press conference today, immigration remains a vital issue to the president. He campaigned promising to deport millions and to build a wall on the Mexican border. And, last week, federal immigration raids in at least six states arrested hundreds.

But the immigration debate also plays out in the nation’s so-called sanctuary cities, where local governments resist cooperating with federal immigration officials.

The NewsHour’s William Brangham went to Austin, Texas, for a closer look.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just a few hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, another newly elected official, Sheriff Sally Hernandez of Travis County, Texas, posted this video:

SALLY HERNANDEZ, Travis County, Texas, Sheriff: I’m Sally Hernandez, your Travis County sheriff.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The video laid out her department’s policy change, which limits cooperation with agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Hernandez says she doesn’t want her deputies to be seen as ICE agents.

SALLY HERNANDEZ: We in law enforcement need the cooperation of our communities of color. We need them to be running to us, and not running away from us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Travis County, which includes Austin, has an estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants, like Felix Jimenez. The sheriff says people like Jimenez won’t trust police if they’re constantly afraid of being deported.

And Jimenez agrees.

FELIX JIMENEZ, Undocumented Immigrant (through interpreter): We’re afraid when we see a police officer. We’re Hispanic. We could be stopped for any reason. The real fear that keeps me nervous after a long day is that I may not see my children because I was stopped for only a small infraction.

SALLY HERNANDEZ: We cannot afford to make our communities less safe by driving people into the shadows.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sheriff Hernandez won her election promising to take this very action, but her critics have pounced, saying she’s created Texas’ first sanctuary city, and deriding her as Sanctuary Sally.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, R-Texas: We will ban sanctuary cities in Texas.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Texas Governor Greg Abbott accused the sheriff of betraying her oath, calling her argument frivolous, shortsighted and dangerous.

In retaliation, the governor started cutting $1.5 million in grants to Travis County. They fund things like drug courts and domestic violence prevention.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT: We are seeking fines. We are seeking to withdraw more state funds. We are seeking court orders that compel these officials like this sheriff to comply with the law or possibly go to jail themselves.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Austin is now among dozens of so-called sanctuary cities across the U.S. While there’s no official definition for a sanctuary city, the term generally means local police aren’t turning in every undocumented immigrant to federal authorities.

These cities have long drawn the ire of President Trump. During the campaign, he threatened all of them.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Block funding for sanctuary cities. We block the funding. No more funding.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A promise he kept soon after taking office.

But mayors are pushing back.

MAYOR MARTY WALSH, Boston: We will not be intimidated by the threat to fed funding.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL,Chicago: I want to be clear: We’re going to stay a sanctuary city.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, New York: We are going to defend all of our people, regardless of where they come from and regardless of their documentation and status.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Back in Texas, state legislators are trying to pass a law making it illegal for any city or county to limit cooperation with ICE.

MAN: We are in a dangerous path as a society, so that’s what this bill does for

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Senate Bill 4 would require counties to determine the immigration status of everyone in their custody, as well as honor all requests from federal immigration officials to detain people indefinitely.

WOMAN: We just won’t criminals who are here illegally and committing crimes to stay in our state.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Both sides testified about the proposed law.

MAN: I do believe your bill is unconstitutional, on its face, actually.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: State Senator Charles Perry introduced Senate Bill 4. The bill says state officials who fail to comply with the law would face criminal prosecutions and hefty fines.

CHARLES PERRY, (R), Texas State Senator: These are attention-getters. These are, we’re going to be serious about uniform, consistently without prejudice, applying the law to everyone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, how do local police interact with federal immigration officers? Right now, when someone is arrested in any location in the U.S., they’re fingerprinted, their name is checked against several databases, and information is shared electronically with immigration officials.

DENISE GILMAN, University of Texas Law School: There is a federal provision that requires local jurisdictions to provide information to the federal immigration authorities.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s the law nationwide?

DENISE GILMAN: That’s right. And everybody is complying with that. There’s really no question about that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Denise Gilman is an immigration law professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

DENISE GILMAN: The next step then is, what does ICE decide to do, the federal immigration authorities? If ICE decides to request that the local jurisdiction hold onto somebody for additional time, they file what’s called a detainer. But the courts and the federal government have recognized that that’s really just a request to local jurisdictions to hold …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s not a legally binding contract.

DENISE GILMAN: It’s not a legal binding contract.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: If immigration officials come to you and ask for and give you one of these detainers and say, we’d like you to hold these 10 people, why not just hold all 10 of them?

SALLY HERNANDEZ: We are treating immigration like we do any other law enforcement agency. So, if somebody from another county calls me up and says, you have somebody in your custody, hold them for me, I would ask them, do they have a warrant? And if they have a warrant, we will hold them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why is that warrant important?

SALLY HERNANDEZ: Because that warrant is based on probable cause.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sheriff Hernandez says she will honor detainer requests in cases of murder, sexual assault and human trafficking. Otherwise, she is not legally required to hold people without warrants.

Other jurisdictions have been sued for doing exactly that, for violating constitutional due process.

So, if you’re within the border of the U.S., regardless of where you’re from, where you’re born or what your status is, the Constitution protects you?

DENISE GILMAN: That’s right. And especially when it comes to fundamental constitutional principles like liberty, that is a fundamental constitutional principle that is guaranteed to all persons within the United States, regardless of immigration status.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: SB-4, the law that would in effect outlaw sanctuary cities statewide, has left many immigrant families like Felix Jimenez’s on edge. He lives with his wife, Brenda, who is also undocumented from Mexico, and their daughter, Evelyn, born in the United States, and a citizen.

He believes undocumented people need to speak out. He recently attended this rally against SB-4. Up until a few months ago, Felix says he felt he could call the police for help, like when he was robbed and left bloody on the street

FELIX JIMENEZ (through interpreter): I called the police and they helped me. I was hospitalized. I had X-rays done. I was in a lot of pain, and it still hurts. But if that law existed, I wouldn’t be able to report the crime because of my status.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, what do you say to someone, not just Sheriff Hernandez, that having local police be a quasi-extension of immigration enforcement makes their communities less safe, not more safe?

CHARLES PERRY: Yes. And I think, one, that’s a dangerous logic. So we’re going to not adhere to the law in the name of applying the law. So, logically, that doesn’t reconcile with me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Last week, Perry’s bill passed the Texas Senate and will be debated in the House. Governor Abbott has promised to sign it.

When it passes, Sheriff Hernandez’s department could be running against the law. But, in the meantime, Hernandez has been getting what she asked for. ICE officials have been providing warrants to hold people, and her office is honoring them.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Austin, Texas.