Abbott, Hernandez

Abbott Threatens to ‘Remove’ Travis County Sheriff if She Does Not Fully Cooperate with ICE

Critics say the governor has no legal standing to remove an elected official from office over a policy disagreement.


Abbott, Hernandez
Governor Greg Abbott and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez — “sanctuary cities”  Illustration via Patrick Michels/

Governor Greg Abbott threatened to “remove” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez from office and cut funding for the agency on Wednesday in response to a policy she’s planning to enact that would limit the local jail’s cooperation with federal immigration officials.

“We are working on laws that will ban sanctuary cities, remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities and pose criminal penalties as well as financial penalties,” Abbott said during a live Fox News interview.  “… if [Hernandez] doesn’t [cooperate], we will remove her from office.”

It is not immediately clear how Abbott would remove an elected official. A high-profile proposal — Senate Bill 4, touted by the state’s conservative leaders — moves to ban so-called sanctuary cities and slash funding for agencies that do not comply with federal immigration detainers, but does not currently include an instrument to remove an officeholder.

“Abbott doesn’t have any legal standing to remove her from office,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that targets “political corruption and corporate abuses” in Texas. “He could have legislation introduced to give up their office if they support ‘sanctuary city’ policies, but I can’t imagine you could write a piece of legislation that would give the governor that kind of authority — I don’t think it would be constitutional.”

Abbott and Hernandez’s offices did not return requests for comment.

The dispute between Abbott and Hernandez centers on immigration detainers.

If a person who has been arrested is suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, the Department of Homeland Security can issue an “immigration detainer” — a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to another law enforcement agency to hold that person for up to 48 hours after they would have been otherwise released.

On January 20, Hernandez announced that Travis County sheriff’s officials will only assist with ICE’s request when a suspect is charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

Otherwise, the Sheriff’s Office says it will only cooperate with “detainers” if there is a court order or arrest warrant signed by a judge ordering a person with unclear immigration status to be held in jail.

“Travis County Sheriff’s Office deputies and resources will be focused on serious criminals and true threats to public safety, regardless of immigration status,” said Hernandez in a video she released discussing the policy. “We will work with federal immigration officials, but this office will not increase our liability or set unwise public safety priorities simply to ease the burden of the federal government.”  

In the past, noncompliant agencies have faced no federal consequences for refusing immigration detainer requests, but Texas Republicans want to add penalties.

“This is completely outrageous,” Abbott said. “We’re going to crack down on this and ban sanctuary cities in Texas.”

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office stands to lose approximately $1.8 million in state grants if it moves ahead with the policy, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

All 20 Republican state senators signed a letter addressed to Hernandez Wednesday in which they back Abbott and “strongly condemn this ‘sanctuary’ policy and ask that [she] rescind it immediately.”

Critics like state Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, say the bill purports to solve a problem that “does not exist in our state.”

“These bills would make our communities less safe by eroding trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve and diverting their already strained resources to enforcing federal immigration laws for which they have no responsibility,” Anchia said.