Texas governor threatens defiant sheriff's job and funds after she pledges to uphold sanctuary protections

When the new sheriff in the liberal Texan enclave of Travis County vowed last week that her county would become an immigration sanctuary, with its officers refusing to help enforce federal immigration laws, the state’s Republican governor went on national TV to bite back.

“Completely outrageous,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Fox News, threatening to push Sheriff Sally Hernandez out of office. It was the same day President Trump signed an executive order saying “sanctuary cities” would lose millions in federal funds if they didn’t help federal immigration agents round up those in the country illegally.

On Wednesday, Abbott stepped up the pressure, announcing Texas would withhold $1.5 million in state funding from Travis County, which includes the capital city of Austin, a clear attempt to force the sheriff’s hand. Hernandez, an elected Democrat, was being “reckless,” the governor wrote.

As mayors of major cities in solidly liberal states such as California and New York vow to fight the president’s immigration orders — San Francisco sued Trump over the issue this week — local officials in Republican and more politically divided areas are coming into conflict not just with governors but state legislatures and residents. 

In Santa Fe, N.M., the Democratic mayor’s staff has fielded more than 100 calls and emails attacking his stance against Trump’s order, and thought at least one was serious enough to assign police to protect the mayor.

In Alabama, Republican Gov. Robert J. Bentley came out this week against a move days earlier by the Birmingham City Council to declare itself a sanctuary city, saying the state would not support cities that were “in clear violation of the laws.”

In Miami, the county mayor’s announcement that he will follow the president's order has put him under heat from many residents in the majority-Latino area. 

“The nature of the immigration debate is that it’s very local, and there tend to be few places where the views are unified,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine. “We’re going to see more tension rather than less in the coming months.”

The term “sanctuary city” is a catchall to describe varied local policies toward federal immigration enforcement. Police in those cities often refuse to check immigration status when making arrests and frequently don’t honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain people who don’t have immigration papers.

Some jurisdictions have also denied ICE access to jails and prisons. Many major cities and counties have declared themselves sanctuaries, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington and Baltimore. 

The sheriff’s policy in Travis County, announced via YouTube the day of Trump’s inauguration, says officers need a warrant to enforce detention requests from ICE. The policy allows exceptions for people charged with murder, first-degree sexual assault or human smuggling.

Hernandez declined an interview, but said in a statement that she was following the law as “a leader sworn to protect this community” and was “upholding constitutional rights to due process for all in our criminal justice system.”

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales has become one of the faces of the sanctuary movement with interviews on cable TV networks and radio shows since Trump’s order. 

“‘Sanctuary’ is a word that's been pushed by Trump as rhetoric. In our city what we do is practice our value to not discriminate against people,” said Gonzales, whose city of 70,000 has had a sanctuary policy since 1999. “What the president is doing really disrupts efforts to have cities that are inclusive, that want full participation from their people and want residents to feel safe.”

Legal experts say the law may be on the side of sanctuaries. Several court decisions have said that financial threats like the one the president has made are an illegal intrusion into states’ rights. Experts say Trump’s vague language on which jurisdictions he is targeting and what specific kinds of funds he wants to withhold has also sowed confusion.

That’s left some state officials to amplify the president’s decision with their own efforts. The Texas governor said he will pursue a new law to “remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities,” though it’s unclear how such legislation would work.

“There has been a huge legal battle fought over this kind of terrain already,” said Christopher Lasch, a law professor at the University of Denver. “Police have wide latitude.”

Gonzales, the Sante Fe mayor, said he thought the president was “using bully tactics” and wasn’t sure how Trump would follow through. For the current fiscal year, the city has $6.1 million in federal grant funding.

Still, Gonzales said he’s “felt the effect of the president’s words.”

As he does every few months, the mayor held open office hours this week where residents got five minutes to talk about anything they wanted to with the city's top official.

It’s usually easy to get a spot and find the mayor alone with his door wide open at City Hall, awaiting constituents coming to complain — often about tickets and issues with loud neighbors. 

But after a flurry of angry complaints sent to the mayor about his sanctuary stance, this week’s open house occurred with four armed police officers outside the door.

Gonzales said he was surprised he needed police protection “for coming out against the president’s bully tactics.”

Trump, he said, “is using words and the Oval Office to push out policy that will… inflame people.”

jaweed.kaleem@latimes.com

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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