In Austin, some courts might have to be crowdfunded.
That’s because the city is what President Donald Trump calls a “sanctuary city”—and it’s facing extraordinary pressure, both political and financial, to join the Trump administration’s mass deportation efforts.
Austin is in Travis County, where its so-called sanctuary policy has already cost it $1.5 million in state funding that would have paid for drug courts, veterans’ courts, and aid to domestic violence victims.
Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other advocates of tougher immigration enforcement urge local police and sheriffs to help ICE in its deportation efforts. But many local law enforcement officials—including including Travis County’s new sheriff, Sally Hernandez—are hesitant, fearing that undocumented immigrants will be less likely to help police track down dangerous criminals if those police are in cahoots with ICE.
When Hernandez announced the county wouldn’t always cooperate with Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott cut state funding to the county.
So the sheriff’s supporters are now crowdfunding to make up for the lost cash—cash that pays for special courts designed to help War on Terror veterans with PTSD and parents with drug addictions. And it’s unlikely to be an anomaly, as Austin has become a national focal point in Trump’s efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised repeatedly to cut federal funding for “sanctuary cities,” meaning cities that don’t hold undocumented immigrants in their jails who would otherwise be released just so ICE can pick them up to deport them.
When Hernandez became sheriff, she announced that the county would be less cooperative with ICE, only holding people ICE wanted if ICE had a warrant from a judge or if the person was charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human trafficking.
This change outraged Abbott, who said the new policy would make Austin less safe. So he announced the state would withhold $1.5 million in grant funding this year unless Hernandez changes the policy.
That’s left Hernandez’s supporters with a tough quandary: How much will Austin give up to keep trust between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement?
Ultimately, the county could lose significantly more than $1.5 million, since Trump has directed the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to figure out how much grant money they give to so-called sanctuary cities, and whether that money can be cut. Sessions, who heads the Justice Department, is a long-time supporter of these efforts.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, whose district includes part of Austin, told The Daily Beast the $1.5 million loss will have “a tremendous impact.”
“It’s going to have a pretty big effect on not just veterans, but family violence cases, you name it,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
“You have our governor and the president playing political football with people’s lives,” he added.
So Rodriguez started a crowdfunding page, Travis County #StrongerTogether, to try to raise enough money to offset the lost $1.5 million. So far, according to the site, which went live in early February, has raised about $136,000—less than one tenth of the lost funding. CBS Austin reported the veterans court will run out of money in May.
And Travis County hasn’t even lost any federal money yet. Rodriguez is a strong supporter of Hernandez’s policy, but he said if the county loses enough funding, the sheriff could face significant pressure to work more closely with ICE.
“At some point, you hit a point where the cuts are so much, it becomes so great that if you’re the sheriff, you have to have that discussion—you have to figure out what you’re going to do,” he said. “And there probably is a point where the purse strings are such that it’s going to be hard for her not to change her policy.”
Hernandez hasn’t commented on the possibility of losing federal grant money. She praised Rodriguez’s crowdfunding efforts in a Facebook post in February.
Trump allies understand that withholding grant money can create incredible pressure.
“What remains to be seen is how much the sheriff and the local government leaders and the citizens and residents of Travis County are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain the sanctuary policy,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
CIS is one of the outside groups with the most influence on Trump’s immigration policy goals, and it has long pushed for this strategy. Vaughan said she hopes the Justice Department goes even farther, potentially prosecuting Travis County officials under a section of the U.S. code that bars jurisdictions from “harboring illegal aliens.”
“If the policy is determined to be in violation of that particular section of the law, 8 U.S. Code 1373, and I think it is, then the DOJ could seek an injunction or potentially even try to prosecute the jurisdiction for harboring illegal aliens, which is another section of the law that could potentially lead to fines or even arrests of local officials,” she told The Daily Beast.
Rodriguez said the notion that Hernandez’s policy violates federal law is risible. A federal judge would have to make the ultimate determination, if the Justice Department tries to take that route.
Regardless, pressure on Austin—and on sanctuary jurisdictions around the country, of which there are more than 600—will only grow. The Department of Homeland Security has started releasing weekly reports highlighting jurisdictions that don’t comply with detainers, and Travis County made up the bulk of the first report. Fox News has also aired segments criticizing Hernandez, including on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show on March 24. Abbott went on Carlson’s show and ripped into Hernandez.
“It’s posing great danger,” Abbott said.
“We have taken action,” he added. “We’re going to take even stiffer action to prohibit and ban sanctuary cities in Texas.”
Abbott then talked up a bill that recently passed the Texas state Senate which would require jurisdictions there to comply with ICE.
“We’re working on a piece of legislation that will impose criminal penalties, where the sheriff herself can wind up behind bars and, hence, be removed from office, fines that can add up to millions of dollars per year, as well as other penalties,” he said.
That’s a lot of pressure by itself—lost funding, and even the threat of prison. But some say it’s not all. Bob Libal, who heads the anti-deportation group Grassroots Leadership, told The Daily Beast in February that he thought ICE deportation raids taking in place in Austin were retaliation for Hernandez’s policy. Since then, a federal magistrate judge said she shared that view.
Libal said he thinks ICE crackdowns will continue.
“We fully anticipate that we will continue to be a target,” he said.
Rodriguez takes the same view.
“I think it’s safe to say we have been targeted,” he said. “We’re not the only ones, but we certainly have been targeted.”
ICE told The Daily Beast that charges they retaliated against Austin are incorrect—but hinted that the sheriff’s policy means their presence there could be more pronounced than in other cities.
“Rumors and reports that recent ICE operations are specifically targeting Travis County, apart from normal operations, are inaccurate,” said Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokesperson. “However, more ICE operational activity is required to conduct at-large arrests in any law enforcement jurisdiction that fails to honor ICE immigration detainers.”