AUSTIN, Texas — New U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen harshly criticized so-called "sanctuary cities" late Tuesday, urging the rest of the nation to emulate Texas' tough law banning them.
President Donald Trump's former deputy White House chief of staff, Nielsen was confirmed by the Senate last week. She wasted little time visiting Austin, where Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez once promised not to comply with some "detainers," or federal requests to hold for possible deportation people who were already jailed on non-immigration charges.
That helped prompt the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature to approve in May a sanctuary cities crackdown known as SB4, where sheriffs and police chiefs can face removal from office and even criminal charges for failing to fully enforce federal immigration policy. The measure now is being contested in federal court, but Nielsen nonetheless praised Texas for taking a "firm stand against dangerous and destructive sanctuary cities."
"I hope other states follow this lead," she said, calling for an elimination of a "shadow society outside the rule of law."
Choosing to come to Texas to discuss sanctuary cities so soon after taking her post sent a political message. Homeland Security has been leading the charge on implementing Trump's aggressive immigration agenda, and Nielsen has pledged to continue that.
She was in Baltimore earlier Tuesday with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that this week's attack on the New York City subway system showed in the "starkest terms" that the failures of the U.S. immigration system are a national security issue.
Nielsen told reporters in Austin that years of relaxed federal immigration policy have also endangered police officers, saying "sanctuary cities put law enforcement lives at risk in favor of criminals who have no right to be in the United States."
Hernandez, a Democrat, had announced on the day of Trump's inauguration that Austin jails would only comply with federal requests to hold in jail immigrants suspected of violent crimes — not those being held on the most-common offenses like drunken driving, She cited a need to create trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
But Hernandez also announced policy changes after Texas' sanctuary cities ban was approved.
She was the only Texas law enforcement official to publicly oppose full compliance with federal detainer requests, but the state's largest cities, including Houston and Dallas, have joined forces in suing to block the law. Opponents argue such crackdowns make combating crime harder since it spreads fear and mistrust among immigrant communities and spooks potential witnesses to crimes from cooperating with police.
Nielsen didn't mention Hernandez by name, but called Texas' capital "a city whose political leadership has at times fought SB4." She urged Congress to deny "certain grants and funding" to communities nationwide that don't have anti-sanctuary cities policies.
"It is quite simple to me," she said. "If these sanctuary states and cities do not want to protect their citizens by upholding federal law, then they are not entitled to the federal government's money."
Also Tuesday, Nielsen announced that seven Texas counties had signed new agreements to join a federal program known as 287(g), which allows sheriff's deputies and other officials to get training to become certified immigration officers. Expanding the program has been a priority for the Trump administration, and the government now has 67 agreements with law enforcement agencies in 18 states — up from 31 agreements at the start of the year.