In response to vows from the state and federal government to knock out so-called “sanctuary cities," roughly 30 people crowded around a rickety podium Wednesday to announce their support of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s immigration policy.
They held signs reading, “We are here to stay” and “United against fear and hate,” at the local headquarters of the Workers Defense Project. They chanted, “Aqui estamos, y no nos vamos.” (In English, “We are here, and we’re not going.”)
Gov. Greg Abbott told Fox News on Wednesday that state lawmakers will penalize “sanctuary cities” this legislative session by passing a bill to “ban” them. In the case that he could not, Abbott said, he would seek to remove Hernandez from office.
Reaction to Abbott’s promises fell along party lines, as state Republicans and Democrats weighed in. But at the Workers Defense Project on Wednesday, the cries among those gathered were angry, fervent and urgent.
“Trump’s and Abbott’s attempts to coerce our local police departments to become deportation agents are racist attempts, unconstitutional and dangerous for our public safety,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said. “Greg Abbott has ludicrously threatened to remove a democratically elected official and overturn the will of Travis County voters.”
Also on Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting “sanctuary jurisdictions,” promising to strip them of federal funds. The City of Austin currently receives nearly $43 million in federal grants – some of which fund AIDS nonprofits and airport security.
The executive order also calls for publishing a weekly list of local jurisdictions that do not comply with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
With no legal definition of a "sanctuary jurisdiction," the president’s executive order leaves it up to the secretary of Homeland Security: “The Secretary has the authority to designate, in his discretion and to the extent consistent with law, a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction.”
U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett joined advocates, lawyers and immigrants Wednesday, who questioned the legality of the governor's threat.
“Neither the president nor the governor have authority to suddenly cut off funds to some ill-defined community called a ‘sanctuary community,’” he said. “But the City of Austin and Travis County are not sanctuary cities. They are cities that are welcoming communities and they are cities that don’t believe in following anti-immigrant hysteria. And they do believe in enforcing the law.”
Constitutional law expert Sanford Levinson at the University of Texas School of Law says he believes Governor Abbott could theoretically obtain the authority to remove a sheriff from office, if the legislature grants that authority to him, but Levinson says raw legal power is not only consideration.
“I really find it especially interesting as a political issue, whether Abbott can bring enough Republicans along with this out and out attack on local government on the ability of Austin to govern itself,” Levinson told KUT.
As for actions the state could take, bills targeting sanctuary cities have failed in past legislative sessions. But at least one has been filed this session: Senate Bill 4, which was filed by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), would bar local governments that do not honor ICE requests to detain people charged with a crime from receiving state grants. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing next week.
This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.