Travis County Sanctuary Penalty Could Run Into Millions

Travis County could lose tens of millions of dollars in public funds if Texas lawmakers pass “sanctuary city” legislation.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office is evaluating $125 million in state and federal funds to determine exactly how much would be withheld from the county under Senate Bill 4. Some 74 state agencies send money to Travis County, which has declared itself a sanctuary community.

Criminal justice grants totaling $1.5 million were pulled by the governor last month.

Travis County’s current budget is $951 million.

Reaching for a fiscal whip to tame Texas cities that have policies harboring illegal immigrants, Abbott designated anti-sanctuary legislation as an “emergency measure.”

SB 4, by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, passed the Senate on a party-line vote. It awaits action in the House, where a softer sanctuary bill is being drafted by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents of anti-sanctuary legislation say it must have teeth.

“Only civil fines and criminal prosecution [against local officials] will stop those who ignore the law and expose the public to the predations of certain classes of illegal aliens,” said Thomas Korkmas, who heads Texans for Immigration Reduction and Enforcement.

SB 4 contains such provisions, but skeptics suggest that it won’t be enough.

“The principle is sound, but it will have little effect,” said Dean Wright, organizer of the Austin Tea Party.

“The commissioners will just turn around and cut funding to programs that will have the most damaging effect on the public,” he told Watchdog.

Abbott called out Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez last month for “interfering with immigration-status investigations.”

Hernandez said her jails would honor immigration “detainers” only in murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking cases.

Since Hernandez took office in January, her deputies have arrested 56 people for whom ICE issued detainers on the grounds that the illegal immigrants are a threat to public safety.

Watchdog reported that only two ICE detainers were honored under the sheriff’s sanctuary policy. She allowed 54 to make bail, including suspects arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, sexual assault and felony assault in the attempted strangling of a family member.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on SB 4. The county’s Department of Governmental Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

El Paso officials said their county would likely raise taxes or cut spending to offset any funding reductions by SB 4.

“We only have X amount of dollars. People think about magic money and we don’t have it,” El Paso Chief Performance Officer Nancy Bartlett told KFOX News.

El Paso County officials threatened to sue if SB 4, as passed by the Senate, becomes law

Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, a nonpartisan organization that tracks public funds, said the courts will be “the ultimate arbiter” of sanctuary legislation at both the state and federal levels.

Open The Books calculates that Travis County receives $225 million in federal grants and direct payments annually. The group estimates that $27 billion in federal funds to sanctuary jurisdictions are in play nationwide.

Geren’s proposal – which the House will likely consider before SB 4 – reportedly blurs the definition of what it means to be a sanctuary city.

The yet-to-be-introduced measure is said to prohibit police in most cases from asking witnesses or victims of crimes about their immigration status, even if officers are working in conjunction with federal authorities.

Under SB 4, traffic stops would be sufficient grounds for officers to inquire about motorists’ status.

This article was updated at 9:15 a.m. Monday.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at kward@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward.