5 Things You Should Know in the Fight Over Whether Dallas Is a Sanctuary County

When Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez changed the way her office handled some detention requests from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), charges arose that she created a sanctuary county. On Thursday, she returned to the Texas Capitol to answer charges. 

It seems increasingly likely that there is going to be a fight over moves like the one made by Valdez during the next session of the Texas Legislature.  

1. What is a sanctuary city/county/principality/houseboat?

The short answer: It's hard to say. Even Valdez said Thursday afternoon that she had trouble defining the term. The longer answer: The term comes out of the sanctuary movement that arose in the 1960s and 1970s to help men resisting the Vietnam War draft. They found safe haven in churches, on university campuses and in certain cities. The association with immigration began in the 1980s when California cities like Berkeley and San Francisco declared themselves sanctuary cities for refugees fleeing violence in Central America. San Francisco amplified this effort by adopting its "City of Refuge" resolution in 1985 and essentially stopped coordinating with the federal government on immigration matters. The city said it would not "jeopardize the safety and welfare of law-abiding refugees by acting in a way that may cause their deportation."

In 2014, the San Francisco Sheriff announced that he would not honor any requests from ICE to detain undocumented jail inmates past their expected release dates, unless that request is accompanied by an additional warrant. That policy came under fire this summer after Kathryn Seinle was shot to death in early July on San Francisco's Pier 14. Francisco Sanchez, who's been accused of shooting Seinle, was released from San Francisco County Jail in April despite a hold request from ICE.

During a Texas Senate committee meeting last Thursday, Texas Deputy Attorney General Brantley Starr took his best shot at defining what a sanctuary city means to him. “There is no one defined definition that we know of in the law [of a sanctuary city],” he said. “It would probably be either of two things: A policy, formal or informal, that is prohibiting individuals from investigating, inquiring into, acting on or reporting the immigration status of a person. Or it’s a policy that would prohibit or discourage officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities on ICE detainers.”

2. What exactly did Valdez change about the way the Dallas County Sheriff handles undocumented jail inmates?

If ICE requests an immigration hold on an undocumented person in Dallas County's custody who would otherwise be released from custody, the DSO will now respond — or not — to the request based on the severity of the crime. Anyone accused of an aggravated felony will be turned over to ICE, should the feds want them. People arrested for drug crimes and things like driving without a license will not. Even in the latter case, Dallas County will notify ICE that the requested inmate is being released.

3. Isn't that kinda like what San Francisco does?

Not really. The sheriff says her office has yet to turn down a hold request from ICE, despite the official policy change coming back in October. Essentially, Valdez argues, the changes the DSO implemented merely get the office more in line with ICE's current enforcement behavior. According to the DSO, ICE doesn't even issue requests for detention to Dallas County unless the person they want detained falls into one of the categories that would have Dallas County accept the hold request anyway.

4. What is the state going to do about Valdez?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is incensed about what Valdez has done, despite the fact that nothing has actually happened yet. "Sanctuary City policies like those promoted by your recent decision to implement your own case-by-case immigrant detention plan will no longer be tolerated in Texas," Abbott said in the letter to Sheriff Valdez in October. "Your decision to not fully honor ICE's requests to detain criminal immigrants poses a serious danger to Texans. These detainers provide ICE with the critical notice and time it needs to take incarcerated immigrants into federal custody."

After his letter, Abbott decided that Dallas County would no longer be eligible for law enforcement grant money from the governor's office. Before Abbott turned off the spigot, Dallas County had received about $78,000 in Criminal Justice Division grants in 2015.

That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's also not an amount big enough to generate enough leverage. But the legislature could act more forcibly — changing state law to require that local agencies enforce federal immigration law. That's what's been hinted at during hearings in Austin held over the past two weeks. 

5. Why is Valdez doing this?
Valdez has said she wants to maintain trust within the Dallas County community. She doesn't want residents to fear interacting with the sheriff's office because they are worried about their immigration status. She also believes that arresting and detaining more undocumented people would lead to severe overcrowding at the Dallas County Jail.

There's another reason, too, though. Valdez was sued in federal court in late October for violating the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those county jail inmates for whom she was honoring ICE hold requests. The suit is similar to a case decided in Oregon earlier this year. The judge in that case ruled that Maria Miranda-Olivares' Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was held for two weeks on an ICE request despite her family being ready and willing to pay her $500 bail.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young