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Mayor Adler Says Austin And Travis County Don't Meet Definition Of 'Sanctuary City'

Stephanie Tacy for KUT News
Mayor Steve Adler speaks at the Texas state Capitol in January.

Austin and Travis County do not meet the definition of "sanctuary city" in the eyes of the federal government, Mayor Steve Adler said today after a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C.

"I specifically asked the question, 'Would a city that was not honoring voluntary detainers be a city that was sanctionable under the president's order directed at sanctuary cities?'" Adler told KUT's Nathan Bernier. "And I was told no."

Adler and other mayors met with Sessions on Tuesday, four days after the Justice Department sent letters to nine jurisdictions, warning them that they could lose federal grant money if they didn't comply with federal immigration laws. Neither Austin nor Travis County received a letter.

Sessions told the mayors that under the executive order President Trump issued in January a sanctionable city is one that willingly violates 8 U.S.C 1373. The law, which concerns information sharing between local jurisdictions and the federal government,  states:

"[A] Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual."

In a statement to KUT, the Department of Justice said, “The Attorney General did not comment or provide a legal opinion as to whether Austin or any other jurisdiction is or is not in compliance with 8 U.S.C. Section 1373.” 

A DOJ document associated with the letters sent Friday specifically said warrantless detainer requests are voluntary, so not participating – which is Travis County's policy – does not violate federal law. However, Gov. Greg Abbott cited the sheriff's policy when he pulled $1.5 million in state grants to Travis County in February. 

"You don't violate 8 U.S.C 1373 if you're not honoring voluntary detainer requests," Adler said. "You're not violating 8 U.S.C 1373 if your local police don't participate in ICE raids or ICE sweeps. You're not a sanctionable city, and you're not violating 8 U.S.C 1373, if your police doesn't ask someone's immigration status if it's not relevant to a crime."  

Adler said the conversation with Sessions was helpful and that the attorney general agreed to have these points in writing.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt issued a statement saying she was grateful the mayors met with Sessions and Homeland Security officials Tuesday.

"We at the local level do not enforce federal immigration laws. We enforce state criminal laws," she said. "In doing so, Travis County does not withhold information nor otherwise obstruct enforcement by federal immigration officials. Based on the account of the mayors’ meeting, Attorney General Sessions implicitly agrees." 

Also Tuesday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Californiaissued a temporary rulinghalting enforcement of Trump's executive order withholding federal funds from "sanctuary cities." The City of San Francisco and the County of Santa Clara had filed lawsuits against the administration, arguing that the order threatened to deprive them of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants that support core services.

“Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick wrote.

The City of Austin had filed briefs in support of the lawsuits.   

The ruling comes as the Texas House is set to debate legislation Wednesday on sanctuary cities. Regarding Senate Bill 4, which passed the Senate last month, Adler said it goes well beyond federal law.

"I think it's really important to be hearing now from the acting director and attorney general that with respect to our sheriff's action to not accept detainer requests that that is not considered a violation of federal law," Adler said. "We were the ones that said that and I'm not sure that people believed us when we said that, but I believe we received confirmation today from the attorney general."

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
Stephanie Federico is a digital news editor at Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @steph_federico.
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