Adler: 'Sanctuary city' lacks clear definition

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday it is unclear whether Austin is a sanctuary city since Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told him the federal government cannot define the term.

On Thursday, Adler discussed his Wednesday meeting with Kelly about immigration enforcement as part of a national Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C. Adler said the federal government is unsure how to discipline cities and counties with policies protecting undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement because it cannot define sanctuary cities and the laws they are breaking.

“I would like us to get to a place where we have greater certainty as to what is a sanctuary city is and what may or may not be the targeted sanction or remedy,” Adler said.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the federal government would withhold grants from cities with similar policies, which Adler said may or may not apply to Austin over Travis County’s immigration policy. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office implemented a policy Feb. 1 that does not allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to detain suspected undocumented inmates without a warrant from a judge. 

Travis County joined San Francisco’s lawsuit against the Trump administration’s defunding threats against sanctuary cities on Tuesday. Adler said Austin is not breaking laws because federal judges have ruled blocking detainer requests without warrants does not violate immigration law and is constitutional.

“There continues to be no allegation from anyone that I have heard, that Travis County or Austin are violating any federal or state law,” Adler said. “If the federal government were to start defunding Austin in the current state of the law, I would imagine that the city would raise the issue legally in court.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott withheld state funding from Travis County on Feb. 1, and Adler said at the discussion the issue of undocumented immigration should not be political. Adler said members from One Voice Central Texas, a nonprofit which provides health and human services, told him undocumented immigrants do not use their services because they fear deportation.

“I had a meeting with social service providers that tell me, anecdotally, that they’re seeing a drop in clients that are coming to them seeking health and services,” Adler said. “I’m concerned about that because social services are helping to keep us safe.”

Government lecturer Alan Sager said the state and federal government defunding cities over sanctuary policies is justifiable.

“I think they have the right to do that,” Sager said. “I’m not sure that this is the way I’d go about it, but I think they certainly need to do something to make sure the law is enforced.”

Adler said he agrees with Kelly’s focus on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes, although Kelly never defined specific serious crimes warranting targeted operations.

History and public affairs professor Jeremi Suri said the federal government cannot make local government enforce immigration law based upon offenses.

“No one on that list that the federal government wants Travis County to lock up is anyone who has been deemed a threat to the safety of citizens in Travis County,” Suri said. “Those who have been deemed a threat to Travis County have already been locked up.”