CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
BURNET — A political battle brewing between the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration officials could bring more inmates to the Burnet County Jail, translating into more local funds to house detainees, officials say.
On Feb. 1, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez enacted a policy to reject detainer requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless presented with a warrant or the inmate is charged with certain crimes.
“It limits the number of detainers that we will honor from ICE to place on certain inmates they may want to place a hold on,” Travis County Corrections Bureau Major Wes Priddy said. “If they come into our custody, and they have a murder charge to include capital murder, any of the aggravated sexual assault charges, continuous smuggling of persons or human trafficking, as it is referred to, or if there is a warrant or a judicial court order placed on the individual by the federal government, then it would be honored.”
The action motivated Gov. Greg Abbott to simultaneously halt $1 million in state grant funding to Travis County and set the stage for a broader legal fight on the federal and state levels.
Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd took a different stance on the relationship his agency has with the federal agency tasked with enforcing immigration laws.
“This isn’t a budget issue; it’s a public safety issue,” Boyd said. “I don’t think a sheriff can pick and choose which laws they enforce, so I don’t think we can pick and choose which detainers to enforce.”
As a result, Burnet County stands to gain funding should ICE officials look to its jail to hold inmates who are suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
Burnet County Jail reported about 60 federal detainees of approximately 400 current inmates. It has a capacity of 580 inmates.
The county charges $35 per bed to house out-of-county inmates; however, the charge for federal holds is $59.26 per bed.
“The whole theory of Burnet County buying that facility that is larger than our current needs is that we would lease out the overage beds to neighboring counties or other entities that require bed space that we would have revenue from that and defer the cost to the local taxpayers,” Burnet County Judge James Oakley said.
Boyd said the local facility is equipped to handle a larger number of ICE detainees.
“Obviously, we can’t enforce immigration laws, but we can hold their detainers,” Boyd said. “They contact us if they have people who need to be housed. If we have room, we’ll take those inmates in.
“If Travis County doesn’t accept those inmates for those detainers, they may bring them to our jail,” he added
Under the Travis County policy, officials allow for a 48-hour hold without a warrant.
“We would only hold up to 24 hours on a detainer under the old policy,” Priddy said. “Now, if the ICE detainer is honored, the ICE detainer will be taken at face value, and they will be held up to 48 hours for transfer.”
ICE officials say, in the interim, they have adjusted their protocols to adhere to the Travis County policy to keep suspected illegal immigrants in custody until the federal agency can transport them to holding facilities for review.
“In coordination with ICE, our office is evaluating detainees in the Travis County Jail for federal prosecution at an earlier stage. In the past, we might review them after state proceedings concluded and after they went into ICE custody,” according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas. “We are now reviewing them before the state has completed their proceedings, so we don’t have to rely on the administrative hold.
“The coordination has not changed the nature of our assessment, simply the timing,” the statement reads.
In the meantime, a bill moves closer to passage in the 85th Texas Legislature that would outlaw local practices, referred to as “sanctuary” policies, to shield suspected illegal immigrants from federal agents.
On Feb. 8, state senators approved Senate Bill 4, which would not only withhold state money from law agencies that resist cooperation with federal immigration officials but essentially outlaw so-called “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary campuses.”
The measure is scheduled to go before the Texas House for a vote.
Critics say such a law would dissuade those in the country illegally from cooperating with law enforcement for fear of deportation.
“The Texas Sheriff’s Association has been working on this bill for years,” Boyd said. “Obviously, it has put them in a little bit of a spot for one sheriff.”
Despite loss of funding and the potential for a legal fight between the U.S. Department of Justice and Travis County, the Austin-based agency has vowed to stick by its guns.
“That remains to be seen,” Priddy said. “The reason the stance is being taken is for public safety and to ensure it’s equitable treatment of everyone within our community that all constitutional rights are adhered to.”