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Travis County sheriff responds to community outcry after ‘sanctuary’ policy reversal

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

At a town hall meeting on Monday organized by the Commission on Immigrant Affairs, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez faced a crowd of immigrant rights advocates, service providers and undocumented community members, many of whom expressed disbelief at her Sept. 25 decision to back down from her tenacious policy to reduce compliance with federal immigration detainers.

Hernandez sat on the meeting’s panel with Austin Interim Police Chief Brian Manley and Mayor Steve Adler, and together they responded to questions from the audience regarding the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Sept. 25 decision to allow parts of Senate Bill 4 to be implemented into law at the end of September.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in May on Facebook Live, SB 4 has provoked lawsuits for its provisions that would permit local law enforcement officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status and would compel county jails to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to remove incarcerated individuals of interest for possible deportation.

While audience members asked a wide variety of questions about the new law, most were directed at Hernandez, expressing feelings of betrayal and disappointment. When running for election, Hernandez had pledged to voters that she would not honor ICE detainers, because she said that sort of collaboration would detract from the county’s focus on local public safety. Soon after her inauguration, Hernandez made good on that promise by enacting it into policy.

As SB 4 made its way through the state legislature, Travis County maintained its policy. In August, when U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia placed an injunction on the part of the bill involving detainers, Hernandez said at the town hall that she was hopeful about the way things were going.

Last month, when Hernandez went to her desk to read the 5th Circuit’s ruling, she said she was optimistic. “As I read it, I got this sick, sinking feeling in my stomach that I have to admit is still there,” she said at the town hall.

As much as Hernandez attempted to reassure those in attendance that her heart was still in the same place, many said that they did not understand why she had persevered in her stance on the issue for so long only to give up now. The sheriff responded that she was by no means running away, and she compared the legal battle to a boxing match.

“The bell is going to ring (again), and we’re going to be back in the fight,” Hernandez said.

Oral arguments will be made regarding the law in a court hearing scheduled for Nov. 6, which all panelists said would likely add some clarity to what is presently ambiguous about the law. Until then, Hernandez said the county had to comply with the 5th Circuit’s ruling in order to retain her office’s reputation.

In response to a question from a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient about the rise in honored detainers since the reversal in policy, Hernandez said that the trust of the immigrant community was important to her, and she does not want to lose it. In response to another question, however, she said that disobeying the courts now would weaken the chances of renewing the “sanctuary” policy.

“I’m not going to violate the law. I know that’s exactly what Governor Abbott and the lieutenant governor would like to see,” Hernandez said, “because it would lessen my credibility.”

Photo by Montserrat Garibay.

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