Point Austin: Slamming the Golden Door

The sheriff, the governor, the president – and the new politics of fear

Point Austin

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

– Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus," inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

There's been such an inordinate amount of idiotic blather about "sanctuary cities" and "illegal immigrants" of late that it's difficult to attempt any rational discussion of the subject. As I write, Wednesday morning, we're awaiting the latest pronouncement on immigration from the Big Orange Buf­foon-in-Chief, who founded his political career on "birther" lies about Barack Obama, and his presidential campaign on anti-immigrant hysteria. Emboldened by Trump's open appeals to racism, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week attacked new Travis County Sher­iff Sally Hernandez for fulfilling her campaign promise of ending the office's routine acquiescence to federal immigration authorities on "detainer" requests for any arrestee suspected of being undocumented.

Hernandez's policy – "to ensure the continued participation of victims and witnesses regardless of their immigration status" – is to comply with detainer requests if the feds provide a warrant or court order, or if the arrestee has been charged with or convicted of murder or other serious felonies. In response, Abbott issued a hyperbolic letter denouncing Hernandez, promising withdrawal of state grant funding, and threatening additional action. He has since said he'll support new state laws enabling him to remove county sheriffs who refuse to comply with his personal interpretation of immigration law.

Yet even Abbott's wild-eyed letter – transparently aimed at political pandering – repeatedly cites "immigration detainer requests," indirectly acknowledging that local law enforcers need to determine the best policy for public safety in their jurisdictions. Hernandez, like Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and his predecessor Art Acevedo, have long since concluded that enforcing immigration regulations (a civil matter) would obstruct their ability to pursue dangerous criminals.

Craven Journalism

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was quick to support Hernandez and reject Abbott's "politics of fear," noting simply that the Fourth Amendment requires "probable cause" for extended detention. Congress­man Lloyd Doggett responded to Abbott's threat to remove Hernandez by reminding the governor that county sheriffs fill an office established by the state Constitution, which the governor has no authority to override. "The governor shows contempt for both the Texas Constitution and the Bill of Rights," said Doggett.

In the era of Trump, Abbott's pandering is inevitable, when he's being provided national political cover by the anti-immigrant nonsense emanating from the White House. A country once proud of its immigration-fed vitality – "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me" – is being whipped into xenophobic hysteria by shameless politicians who recognize its effectiveness in preventing people from establishing solidarity over their common needs and common humanity.

Sheriff Hernandez is to be applauded for acting upon the values of the voters who elected her, and refusing to submit to the hysterical politics of fear.

And on too many occasions, the politicians are helped along by those who should know better. Earlier this month, the Austin American-Statesman editors showed their craven colors in an editorial purporting to defend Austin's "local control" against the Legis­lature's encroachment – then both misrepresented and attacked Hernandez's stance on immigration detainers as irresponsibly "poking the growling bear" of state government into backlash against Austin. According to the Statesman, the sheriff intended to ignore all federal detainer requests – including those concerning "dangerous felons" – a policy she neither promised nor instituted. But that mischaracterization enabled the editors to blame the sheriff for any state backlash, and to primly denounce her ("for goodness sake"!) for "poking the bear."

Defend Austin Values

With Republicans dominating political structures (thanks in large part to gerrymandering and voter suppression) and their demagoguery poisoning public discourse, this is all likely to get worse, at least over the next couple of years. The anti-immigrant rhetoric is dishonest at its core. As Doggett points out, Austin and Travis County are not even "sanctuary cities," nor are the 70-some counties taking a similar stance. Rather, these places (where a large percentage of undocumented immigrants live, work, and contribute to their communities) form "a refuge from anti-immigrant hysteria, with a strong commitment to effective law enforcement." Tearing apart families with the constant threat of deportation – as a consequence of traffic offenses, busted tail lights, or even DWIs – doesn't protect public safety, but undermines it.

Eckhardt rightly argues, "The governor seeks to punish communities ... by withdrawing funding for programs that help women, children and veterans. Gover­nor Abbott is engaging in the politics of fear at the expense of our deepest held values." Once upon a time, those deeply held values offered unbridled hope to refugees from war and privation – whatever their race or religion – and to immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families, "yearning to breathe free."

Sheriff Hernandez is to be applauded for acting upon the values of the voters who elected her, and refusing to submit to the hysterical politics of fear. We should all be proud to stand behind her.

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Sally Hernandez, Greg Abbott, Donald Trump, 85th Lege, Lloyd Doggett, Sarah Eckhardt

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