Sheriff Sally Hernandez Continues to Do "What’s Right"

Besieged by the state GOP, Hernandez shows no sign of backing down from her immigration policies

Sally Hernandez at her swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4. (Photo by John Anderson)

At 15 years old she escaped her broken home in Llano County. A teenage runaway, she wanted nothing more than a second chance. After a short period of hiding, she found refuge in the care of a woman named Jeannette. The supportive nurse granted a young Sally Hernandez the fresh start she craved, and infused in her a sense of self-worth and direction. "I probably owe my success to her, because she showed me I had a future and I needed to look forward, not back," said Hernandez. "She believed in people having second chances."

Full circle, today the Travis County sher­iff finds herself fearlessly fighting to ensure local families – who've secured shelter in Austin as part of their own fresh start – stay together. She's done this while besieged by a right-wing governor hellbent on using her as a punching bag in his war against immigrant communities. Hernandez barely had time to savor her first-term victory in November's sheriff's race before Gov. Greg Abbott unleashed a torrent of propagandistic rhetoric – and direct punitive action – against her over her policies toward U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Invoking the ire of conservative Repub­lic­ans, Hernandez on Jan. 20 vowed to not detain people based solely on their immigration status by prioritizing ICE requests for cases of violent crime, starting Feb. 1. The sheriff was within her constitutional rights, yet still sparked backlash from Abbott, who deemed Austin a "sanctuary city" and began a months-long crusade against the capital city that's included a federal lawsuit, the withholding of millions of dollars in state grants, and the filing of Senate Bill 4, the anti-immigrant legislation that punishes law enforcement and local officials who don't fully cooperate with ICE. Also in retribution for local policies, ICE terrorized Aus­tin's immigrant communities in February, rounding up 51 immigrants in the area – most of whom did not have criminal records. President Trump's own threats to cut federal funding to "sanctuary cities" and deport millions of undocumented immigrants only amplified the governor's attacks and further positioned Hernandez and the county she represents in the crosshairs of U.S. officials.

Thrust unexpectedly into the national spotlight, Hernandez could do without the extra fanfare. "National attention is not something I wake up and desire," she told me during an interview at her office on Airport Boulevard. "I just want to be sheriff, and I just want to do my job."

Hernandez has shown no indication that she'll back down from her ICE policies. Lauded across Texas for her bravery in standing up for immigrant communities, she has quickly ascended to icon status for her display of courage in the face of the fearful rhetoric and proud racism polluting national and state politics.

But for a long time, fearlessness was not a part of her DNA.

Learning To Be Brave

Hernandez found herself alone in the car in an unfamiliar city. Her son's father tasked her with driving around the block in Austin while he ran an errand, but the mere thought of such a rudimentary task frightened her into tears. Nineteen at the time, she had to that point never driven outside of her tiny hometown of Llano (pop. 3,300). "I was kind of a crybaby," she admitted. "I was pretty weak." Hernandez's life focus at the time was to be a mother and raise a family. The prospect of entering law enforcement wasn't anywhere on her radar. She grew up in a dysfunctional family and said all she wanted "was a family of my own, something I didn't really have before. I just wanted to be taken care of."

But instead of being coddled, Hernandez quickly became the caretaker. She married young, and at 21 gave birth to her son Cody, who suffered from a serious brain injury at birth when his placenta separated and he aspirated, going without oxygen for 45 minutes. Hernandez said Cody's birth immediately changed her life: "It was he and I against the world."

“What we really need is a dialogue, and we need to talk solutions. We don’t need to be setting a bonfire. And I really felt like I was the dry wood being thrown on the fire.” – Sally Hernandez

To generate income and take care of her special needs son during the day, Hernandez opted for a night dispatcher gig at the local sheriff's office. "I thought being a dispatcher was going to be really cool; you would just bring a book and answer a few phone calls – no big thing," she said. But with limited resources, the small county office had its hands full; the Llano County Sheriff's Office was also responsible for dispatching for the city and a number of state agencies that were located within the complex, including the Texas Highway Patrol, Depart­ment of Public Safety Narcotics Division, Texas Rangers, TABC, Parks & Wildlife, and the volunteer fire department and EMS. "Turns out there really wasn't any time to read," she said.

The sheriff's office soon after invited her to sit in for investigatory interviews with women and children, and eventually tasked her with the primary responsibility of maintaining recorded statements. That's what initially got her interested in investigations; she ended up "falling in love with law enforcement" through it. "We were helping so many people."

From there, she became the first administrative assistant to the Llano County sheriff, splitting her professional time between the 40-hour work week and police academy training, which took a year to complete. Foreshadowing her run for office, Hernan­dez in 1988 moved to Austin to work for the county constable's office in Precinct 3, then led by Kevin Miskell. Her "dream came true" in 1992 when former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle hired her as an investigator – a role heavily discouraged by her male counterparts. "I was told by a number of men that I would never accomplish that job because you have to have a certain amount of street experience," said Hernandez, who went on to prove them wrong: By 2005, she was promoted to chief investigator, overseeing 21 employees.

When her hometown got wind that timid Sally Hernandez was investigating murders, they were in complete disbelief. "I remember when I started working on murder cases at the D.A.'s office I had people in Llano say to my face, 'You?' Over the years, you get strength from adversity, and Cody definitely helped me gain that strength."

Hernandez lost Cody when he was 24. But her experience raising him taught her invaluable lessons, including how to be brave. Not long after being too fearful to drive around that block in Austin, the new mother was forced to drive hundreds of miles in the dead of night to get to Galveston for her son's medical care. It was in moments like these that she built up her backbone. "He gave me courage," Hernandez said, her eyes tearing up. "I realized my roughest days were nothing compared to what he had to overcome."

A "Sea Change"

Hernandez made her first jump into the political arena in 2012 when she beat two-term incumbent Richard McCain in the Demo­cratic primary and then Republican opponent Mike Varela in the general to win a spot as Travis County constable for Precinct 3. She was midway through her first term when she learned that Greg Hamilton, the county sheriff, was set to retire after 12 years in office. Hernandez decided then to throw herself into the race. "I knew what I was getting myself into with the sheriff's race but don't think I knew the scale I was getting into," she said. Finding a way to communicate her message and who she was stood as her greatest challenge.

To keep her eyes on the prize – an idiom Jeannette instilled within her growing up – Hernandez hung a target in her home office; she stuck words of encouragement from friends and supporters around its center. Inspired by the results foretold in a friend's dream of her victory, she hung a big "52%" smack-dab on the bull's-eye. She gazed at the figure for encouragement throughout her campaign. When Election Day numbers rolled in, Hernandez knocked out Repub­lican opponent Joe Martinez with 52.7% of the E-Day vote, turning her pal's nocturnal prophecy into reality. (Overall, including early voting, she won with a total of 60.4%.) "It reinforces that you've just got to stay focused. But it was hard," she said.

When it came to immigration policy, Hernandez's campaign ran against the hard-line views of her predecessor. Long condemned by the immigrant rights advocacy community, Sheriff Hamilton split with his fellow local leaders by enthusiastically complying with (and even championing) ICE's policies and programs, including Secure Communities (S-Comm), a system designed to identify individuals for deportation through fingerprints when they're simply arrested, not convicted. Under his tenure, 5,000 residents of Travis County were deported as a result of S-Comm – a rate of 19 per week.

“Her policy has been frequently mischaracterized as somehow breaking the law – but it doesn’t. Through it all, she’s been patient, resilient, and very courageous.” – District Attorney Margaret Moore

"What's hidden in our liberal blue dot in this red state is the fact that we've been a leader in deportations nationally," noted Cristina Parker, who works with the immigration advocacy group Grassroots Lead­er­ship. "And I think that's what allowed for this sea change in the sheriff's race." Parker said her organization spoke directly with Hernandez as she crafted her controversial ICE policies and advocated she not comply with ICE under any circumstance. "While she didn't take our full recommendation, we were definitely happy she chose to decline most detainers," said Parker. "It's something we wanted to see and have been advocating for many years." The fact Parker's group could even broach the subject with a sheriff was a radical shift for local advocates. Hamilton "told us he wouldn't move at all on his ICE policies, and he never did," she says. "He wouldn't meet us halfway – or even a quarter of the way."

However much they diverge on the issue, Her­nandez remains hesitant to criticize Hamilton, saying he was "supportive" during her time as constable. "His philosophy on immigration is different than mine, but he's not an enemy," she said.

Setting the Record Straight

Activists led a sit-in at Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on May 1 to protest SB 4. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Just a few weeks after beginning her tenure Jan. 1, Hernandez made national headlines when she announced her office's new policy – coincidentally (or not) on the afternoon of Donald Trump's inauguration into the White House. State lawmakers went berserk. House and Senate Repub­lic­ans, including SB 4 author Sen. Charles Per­ry, R-Lubbock, hurled her name around the Capitol floor to prop up the hateful bill while the governor turned her into his archnemesis, eventually nicknaming her "Sanctuary Sally."

"I knew that immigration was going to stir up a little bit of a dust storm, but I had no idea it was going to stir up a tsunami," she said.

The sheriff shied away from the press to prevent further antagonizing from either side. Rather than a press conference, she announced her policy change via recorded video. "The media wanted to have a battle not only between governor versus sheriff and sheriff versus governor, but between sheriff against president," she said. "And I didn't want that to happen, because I was realizing all it was doing was hurting the communities I was trying to protect. So I stepped back.

"What we really need is a dialogue, and we need to talk solutions. We don't need to be setting a bonfire. And I really felt like I was the dry wood being thrown on the fire."

Amid the flames, the truth about Her­nan­dez and her policies often went up in smoke. Abbott made the rounds on Fox News to debase the Travis County sheriff, and took every opportunity to paint her policies as illegal to drum up fear. "This is not a pronouncement of sound public policy; it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette – with the lives of Texans at stake," the governor wrote in a January letter to Hernandez. "I will be working with the Texas Legislature to do more to protect our citizens from misguided and dangerous sanctuary policies like yours. Your reckless actions endangering the safety of Texans will provide powerful testimony for the need to strengthen Texas law." During his State of the State speech, the guv took a thinly veiled shot at Hernandez when he said "some law enforcement officials in Texas are openly refusing to enforce existing law." And at his secretive, videotaped SB 4 bill signing, he offered an overt (and erroneous) accusation: "This law cracks down on policies like [that of] the Travis County sheriff, who declared that she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes. Those policies are sanctuary city policies and won't be tolerated in Texas."

Hernandez wants to set the record straight: Despite the misinformation swirling in political spheres and within typically conservative media outlets, neither she nor her office has violated any law. "I think the worst part is the misconceptions that are flying around," she said. "The concept that I was breaking the law and that horrible criminals are being turned loose on the street was used to generate fear to push the bill through. And of course, that wasn't true."

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who works closely with Hernandez on mutual issues including prosecutions and jail population control, says Hernandez was just a "convenient target" in a rhetorical attack not based on the facts of her actual policy. The two got to know each other first on the campaign trail, where they each secured November victories. "Her policy has been frequently mischaracterized as somehow breaking the law – but it doesn't," said Moore, the county's top law enforcement official. "Through it all she's been patient, resilient, and very courageous."

Contrary to Abbott's fearmongering and spin, Hernandez's policy remains tough on violent crime. The office automatically honors ICE detainer requests for those charged with or convicted of capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human trafficking. They also use discretion to honor other detainer requests on a "case-by-case basis." The inmate's criminal history and probable cause affidavit are examined – if any crimes or behavior of an "aggravated nature" are present, the detainer request will be honored. If the office sees that an inmate has already been deported by ICE upon reviewing their criminal history, the sheriff will request ICE provide a warrant within 48 hours.

The premise is to focus precious local resources on public safety and not use local jails as holding cells for federal immigration enforcement. "Immigration needs to be fixed on a higher level and it shouldn't fall on local government," stated Hernandez. "My policy was basically to try and prove that." The price of doing ICE's job is steep: In 2016 alone, Travis County spent $7.14 million on inmates with detainers, the second-highest price tag in the state, according to data from the American Immigration Law­yers Association. The county also shoulders liability when a detainer comes back on a person who is in actuality a U.S. citizen, and they decide to sue.

"This isn't something only I wanted, or just the immigrant community wanted," Hernandez said. "It's something Travis County stands for. I believe that it's more than keeping a promise, it's really the right thing to do."

She believes much of the misinformation about her policy is wrapped up in what a detainer actually entails. First of all, the federal request for local jails to hold an inmate suspected of being an undocumented immigrant is voluntary, not mandatory. Second, the sheriff is not legally required to hold people without a judicial warrant or court order. (If they decline a detainer request and ICE is "intent" on having that inmate turned over to them, ICE can – and does – present the agency with a warrant. "When we ask them for warrants they produce warrants," said Hernandez.) A recent judicial ruling validated the county's rules: In early June, U.S. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia found that the Bexar County Sheriff's Office acted unconstitutionally when it honored a detainer and held for two months a Mexican citizen who had already been ordered released, reinforcing that keeping someone in jail based on their immigration status without a warrant isn't justified. (Garcia is currently presiding over the suit against SB 4, brought by Texas cities including Austin.)

And finally, if law enforcement doesn't honor a detainer, that doesn't mean that potential felons are released by the dozens as Abbott would like to project – if they are charged with a crime they must go through the court process. If ICE takes them, on the other hand, they may be deported, or they may self-deport, perhaps evading the criminal justice system's punishment. "When you hear someone has been deported five times and they come back and commit a horrible offense, oftentimes it's because they have not been held accountable," said Hernandez. "I believe that if people come here and commit a crime they need to be held accountable. That's what is fair."

“That [Abbott] would yank money from veterans and kids who suffered family trauma all because he’s mad at the Travis County sheriff – I didn’t see that coming. I was pretty floored by that.” – County Judge Sarah Eckhardt

Despite the national debate, Hernandez's policy isn't radical, contends Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. In fact, she said, it's "reflective of the vast majority of sheriffs across the country." The only difference with Hernandez is that she had the guts to write it down. Eckhardt has also been the target of Abbott's attacks. In February, the governor stripped Travis County of $1.8 million in critical state grants for programs meant to assist vulnerable populations. "The fact that he would yank money from veterans and kids who suffered family trauma all because he's mad at the Travis Coun­ty sheriff – I didn't see that coming," offered the judge. "I was pretty floored by that."

Eckhardt praised Hernandez's work ethic and drive amid the noise from naysayers. Eckhardt calls her a goal-oriented team player, often granting credit to others. "She's stayed very true to the idea that her job is to run a fair, safe jail and law enforcement operation, not to be an immigration officer," said Eckhardt. "She's not about grandstanding and isn't doing this to gain political points. The only thing deceptive about Sally Hernandez is that she's way tougher than she looks."

Fear of SB 4 Mounts

The latest salvo from the Texas GOP came in the form of legal action. Days after Abbott signed SB 4 into law, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a pre-emptive suit against the city, explicitly naming Sheriff Hernandez – as well as Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members – as defendants in the federal legal filing. Because local officials sounded off on the constitutionality of the law, hinting of their own legal challenge, Paxton decided to fire the first shots. Represented by groups including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Edu­ca­tional Fund and the Texas Civil Rights Project, the cities of Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and El Cenizo (as well as El Paso County) have jumped into the fray to fight SB 4 in court. For Hernandez, the prospect of a lawsuit isn't all bad news. "No sheriff wants to be sued," she said. "But I see this lawsuit as an opportunity to get it out of the political world and into the federal court system, where it belongs."

SB 4, which will take effect Sept. 1 unless it's blocked or delayed in court, forces law enforcement to fully cooperate with all ICE detainers and punishes those who don't abide with a fine and possible jail time. Moreover, a "papers, please"-style provision lets police officers inquire about immigration status when someone is detained (not just arrested) such as at a routine traffic stop. And any public official can be removed from office if they endorse a policy that runs counter to SB 4. Despite the fact that virtually every major metro law enforcement leader in Texas opposed the law, the Legislature still voted to approve it. It's meant to beat down on "sanctuary cities" – a loose term with no concrete legal definition, but one that generally refers to cities that refuse to make deporting undocumented immigrants a priority.

Among SB 4's dangerous effects is its ability to promote racial profiling and upend the delicate relationship between local law enforcement and the communities they protect by turning police into a deportation force. The fear mounting in the community is already palpable. Hernandez said her office is seeing kids not going to school "because of fear; not getting medical treatment because of fear; we are seeing a decline in people reporting crime." Recently, the Sheriff's Office has begun hosting a series of town hall meetings to, among other crime prevention objectives, provide residents with information for immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crime – encouraging them to, as Hernandez says, "run toward law enforcement, not away from it." The first town hall took place in Del Valle May 31; the office plans to schedule others across the county soon. "We know our job has become harder," she says, "so we have to become more creative and proactive."

Refocusing Attention

Back in her office chair, as she reflects on her career, tiny diamonds around Hernan­dez's neck gleam in the light. After her November win, her husband gifted her a silver necklace in the shape of a miniature sheriff's badge, with her name inscribed along the six-point star. "It's not my official badge or anything," she joked. It is, however, a reminder that she'd rather focus on her job as sheriff than be a focal point in the fight for immigration rights. The sweep of attention has admittedly distracted from other priorities – a reality Hernandez finds disappointing. "Unfortunately, it has demanded a lot of time and energy," she said.

Hernandez is eager to invest more effort in addressing mental health and giving families the tools they need to communicate with law enforcement when it comes to coping with such disorders. She's also looking at how the county can divert those afflicted with mental health problems from going to jail or, if they do end up there, figure out a re-entry plan. Her office and the district and county attorneys are starting to "strategically" look at the issue to form solutions. She also wants to focus attention on keeping kids out of jails, and stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. "We've got to do more to help young people," she said. "Are we doing enough when it comes to school resource officers and programs?" Reflecting on her own life journey, Her­nan­dez said that if she hadn't been taken in at 15 and given that second chance, she'd likely be in the criminal justice system instead of the criminal justice business.

With two concurrent lawsuits against SB 4, enactment of the law itself on the horizon, a legislative session that is not yet quite over, and a governor and president ruthlessly attacking immigrant communities, the focus on Hernandez and Travis County won't cease anytime soon. Yet if it were up to her, Hernandez would prefer the emphasis be on reforming the system itself.

"Personally, I don't want the attention on me. I would rather the attention be on solutions and a dialogue on fixing the immigration system," she said. "I like that [our policies] started a national conversation. And I would like to hope that it will bring positive results. But I believe we still have so much misinformation to overcome."

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Sally Hernandez, Greg Abbott, 85th Lege, SB 4

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