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Immigration discussion stokes heat at Commissioners Court

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The issue of immigration enforcement caused sparks to fly at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, a rare moment of tension on a dais largely distinguished for its pragmatic cooperation on mundane issues of county administration.

The weekly voting session got off to a hot start when the court took up a briefing by Intergovernmental Relations Director Deece Eckstein on recent events at the 85th Texas Legislature.

Eckstein started with an update on Senate Bill 4, which would punish local governments that refuse to cooperate with enforcement of federal immigration law. Penalties would include fines and loss of grant funding. Senators approved the bill last week. If it becomes law, it could further burden Travis County, which lost $1.5 million in grants when Gov. Greg Abbott reacted to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s choice to no longer honor most detainers requested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty suggested that the court might take action to clarify its official position on Hernandez’s decision, a notion that drew skepticism from Commissioner Margaret Gómez.

“I just think that the Legislature is firing a shot at us,” Daugherty told Gómez. “I mean, you can be quiet if you want, but I fully intend to bring something to the court so we can let somebody know where we are.”

As Daugherty continued to explain that a resolution against the sheriff’s policy could take heat off of the Commissioners Court, Gómez interrupted him and said that she would not want to see that item on a future agenda.

“It’s not our job to evaluate other elected officials,” she insisted during an exchange in which both commissioners talked over each other.

“It is our job,” Daugherty responded.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt soon interrupted them both to announce that she would bring forth the resolution Daugherty wanted at next week’s meeting. She also pointed out that the court never took a collective stance on former Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s choice to participate in ICE’s detainer program. Nor, she added, did the court try to impose its will on Hamilton through its budgetary powers.

“We could have. It was within our power, but we knew if we took it out of his hide in the budget, it would have adverse consequences for Travis County and our ability to protect the public safety of Travis County residents,” Eckhardt said.

“Unlike our governor, who has taken it out of our hide and has impinged on our ability to enforce the state’s laws and protect the public safety of Travis County residents, we did not use the budget hammer to punish another politically elected individual who is exercising his law enforcement discretion,” she continued. “But our governor has chosen to take that position, and I find that reprehensible.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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