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Commissioners Court tackles sanctuary communities, sexual assault in jail, and Trump

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Uncertainty over federal immigration policy following the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump nearly derailed plans to fight back against sexual assault in Travis County jails.

At its regular voting session on Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to accept a reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Justice for holding inmates with illegal immigration status at the county jail.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office applied for $400,955 from the Department of Justice’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) to cover the costs of holding the inmates between June 2014 and July 2015. During that time, 665 qualifying inmates spent at least four days in county custody.

In a memo to the court, Julie Cullen from the department’s Research and Planning division explained that the office planned to use $100,000 of the SCAAP reimbursement to pay for personnel costs. The remaining $300,955 will purchase additional security cameras at the Travis County Correctional Complex to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

On Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt folded the acceptance of the reimbursement alongside other grants into a single item that was intended for the morning’s consent agenda vote.

However, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked to pull the item for discussion based on his concerns over the SCAAP money.

“I think it’s pertinent to consider what’s seeming to be something in this community about some sort of designation as a sanctuary community,” Daugherty said. He alluded to Trump’s campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and block all federal money to jurisdictions that don’t play ball with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

In the past, the sheriff’s office has used the SCAAP money to offset costs related to the Secure Communities program, which required the county to hold undocumented immigrants in custody until they could be interrogated by ICE agents.

Though President Barack Obama modified that controversial program through an executive order in 2014, Sheriff-elect Sally Hernandez vowed during her campaign to deny any federal requests to detain potentially undocumented immigrants, effectively giving Travis County more of a claim to the title of “sanctuary community.”

“There are a number of grants that we have that, quite frankly, we depend on,” Daugherty warned, adding that the court could feel political pressure if it tries to dip into the General Fund to cover potential grant shortfalls.

On Tuesday evening, Commissioner Brigid Shea told the Austin Monitor that the plans to use the money to combat rape in jails did not faze her decision to vote against accepting the reimbursement. She said, “They’re going to dress it up in lots of different ways and try to make it uncomfortable for us to say ‘no,’ but I just want to make it clear that I want no part of it.”

Shea was joined in her opposition by Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who noted to the court that she understands the money will essentially pay back the county for costs already incurred. “However, the community that it has affected has a terrible taste in their mouth about this,” she said.

Ultimately, Shea and Gómez were defeated by commissioners Ron Davis and Daugherty as well as Eckhardt, who called the reimbursement a “gray area.”

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