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Austin Sheriff Says She'll Limit Cooperation With Federal Immigration Authorities


A battle over sanctuary cities is playing out in the liberal enclave of Austin, Texas. The county sheriff there will no longer give federal immigration agents access to her jail. She thus defies a governor and a president who are determined to deport more immigrants who are in the country illegally. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Starting next week, the new Democratic Sheriff Sally Hernandez says the ten-story Travis County Jail in downtown Austin will limit its cooperation with ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If federal agents want to inquire about an unauthorized immigrant in her custody, she'll only cooperate if the detainee is arrested for murder, sexual assault or human trafficking, or if federal agents have an arrest warrant. Hernandez announced the new policy on YouTube the day Trump was sworn in.


SALLY HERNANDEZ: The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local, public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement. Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers.

BURNETT: With this action, Travis County joins 300 other jurisdictions around the country, such as New York City, Chicago and the state of California, that reject ICE detainers. These are requests by ICE to local law enforcement to hold unauthorized immigrants in jail so federal agents can decide whether to pick them up for possible deportation. In deep-red, law-and-order Texas, the sheriff's announcement, which she campaigned on, was akin to kicking a fire ant mound. Republican Governor Greg Abbott's response was swift. He spoke to FOX News.


GREG ABBOTT: She would give sanctuary to people who are in the United States illegally, who've been convicted of crimes in the past, of heinous crimes like armed robbery. They could have been operating in conjunction with drug cartels, and she would not cooperate with ICE whatsoever.

BURNETT: Donald Trump has also taken aim at sanctuary cities. Earlier this week, he announced the federal government would cut off millions of dollars in funding to local jurisdictions that he says shelter criminal aliens. Are they right? Are immigrants in the Travis County Jail dangerous criminals? NPR took a quick survey of the 51 detainers that ICE sent to Travis County since the first of the year. Some immigrants had been arrested for lower level offenses, such as driving while intoxicated and marijuana possession, but most face multiple charges, including serious crimes like murder and sexual assault of a child. Our snapshot reflects a recent trend that ICE has been refining its requests to mainly ask for custody of immigrants with repeat arrests or felony charges. Bob Libal is director of an immigrant human rights group in Austin called Grassroots Leadership. He points to studies that show noncitizens commit crimes and go to jail at about the same or lesser rate as citizens do. He sees the president's and the governor's offensive against sanctuary cities as scapegoating immigrants.

BOB LIBAL: It's simply playing on a cheap kind of anti-immigrant bigotry.

BURNETT: Here's why the Trump administration is fighting with Austin and all the other sanctuary cities - under his new rules, Trump wants to deport any unauthorized immigrant arrested for any crime no matter how minor. The detainer is the primary tool that ICE uses to pick up immigrants charged with crimes, so friendly jailers are essential. Christopher Lasch is a University of Denver law professor who studies immigration detainers.

CHRISTOPHER LASCH: It is impossible in any sense of imagination for President Trump to attain the deportation numbers that he wants without harnessing local criminal justice systems.

BURNETT: Late this week, Sheriff Sally Hernandez double-downed, saying she will not let, quote, "fear and misinformation" change her new jail policy. With the governor and the president threatening to cut off state and federal grant dollars to the county, a showdown appears inevitable. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.