Austin Officials Respond To Sessions' 'Sanctuary City' Remarks: We're Not Breaking The Law

"Our community is violating no federal laws," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' remarks today that the Justice Department would go after "sanctuary" jurisdictions that don't cooperate with immigration authorities.

During surprise remarks at the White House, Sessions urged these jurisdictions to reconsider their policies.

"Moreover," he said, "the Department of Justice will require that jurisdictions seeking or applying for Department of Justice grants to certify compliance with [8 U.S.C. Section] 1373 as a condition for receiving those awards."

Section 1373 prohibits jurisdictions from restricting employees from sending or receiving information “regarding the citizenship of immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

Adler called Sessions’ statement “confusing,” as far as any possible impact on Austin or Travis County.

"At most, we're not voluntarily complying with a voluntary program," Adler told KUT's Nathan Bernier.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also said the county is operating within existing federal guidelines.

“This is not a provision that is unknown to us by any stretch of imagination,” she told Bernier. “And all it asks is that we make sure that any information that we collect, we share with other law enforcement, with federal law enforcement, immigration law enforcement when they need it, and we do. We do not stand in the way of ICE gathering information from Travis County records.”

Adler said the increasing attention to "sanctuary" jurisdictions may discourage undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes out of fear they could be deported, but said that the City of Austin doesn’t currently honor warrantless detainer requests.

Eckhardt has previously said the community is safer when "people can report crimes without fear of deportation."

In a statement, Sheriff Sally Hernandez called Travis County one of the safest counties in the nation and said the ICE policy was in place to reduce its "liability by requiring ICE to provide warrants rather than requests."

Sessions, however, said sanctuary city policies "put whole communities at risk."

Gov. Greg Abbott applauded the announcement that the administration would withhold funds from jurisdictions deemed "sanctuary cities".

“After years of the previous administration turning a blind eye to this issue, the federal government is sending a clear and necessary message that the laws of this land are going to be enforced," he said in a statement. "Texas joins the Trump administration in its commitment to end sanctuary cities, and I look forward to signing legislation that bans these dangerous policies in Texas once and for all.”

Today's announcement appears similar to a policy change made last summer, under the Obama Justice Department, that barred jurisdictions not in compliance with Section 1373 from receiving some DOJ grants.

Travis County receives just over $50 million from both federal and state grants, according to estimates from Eckhardt’s office. Earlier this year, Abbott rescinded $1.5 million in state grants to the county after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez instituted a policy that banned sheriff’s office employees from cooperating with warrantless immigration detainer requests, unless a suspect is accused of murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

“We do grow increasingly concerned that this is a 10th Amendment issue,” Eckhardt said. “That under a federalist form of government, that they are treading dangerously close to the line.”