Texas lawmakers look to punish or remove Austin council members

Council Member Greg Casar (KXAN Photo)
Council Member Greg Casar (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The tension between Texas and some local governments escalated on Wednesday. On Fox News, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to oust Sally Hernandez, sheriff of Travis County, if she doesn’t change her current policy. The governor wants lawmakers to make it possible.

“We are working on laws that would, one, ban sanctuary cities, [and two] remove from office any office holders who promote sanctuary cities,” said Gov. Abbott.

Now, many conservative lawmakers believe it should be applied to the Austin City Council when they pass a law banning “Sanctuary Cities.”

Wednesday, some of the most conservative members in the legislature, known as the Texas Conservative Coalition, announced they want to pass a law that imposes criminal penalties on public officials defending people who came here illegally.

“We are a nation of laws, not of men. Our laws must be enforced and public officials must follow the law,” said Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, at a Wednesday press conference.

In December, the Austin City Council directed the city manager to scrape together funds for undocumented immigrant legal defense. The Texas Conservative Coalition says that makes Austin a “Sanctuary City.”

“From the president on down, we all have laws that we don’t like and we have methods to change them. What we don’t have is the ability to decide which laws we’re going to follow and which laws we don’t,” said Rep. James Frank. R-Wichita Falls.

“We will not be blackmailed to violating our residents constitutional rights,’ said Austin Council Member Greg Casar, District 4.

He alleges one-third of his district consists of immigrant families, many undocumented. He pushed for the tax-funded immigrant legal defense and spoke at a Workers Defense Fund press conference vowing to fight state policies.

“These are state legislators who regularly talk about how things should be left for local government to handle until it’s something like helping the vulnerable, helping the poor, or protecting immigrants,’ said Casar, who thinks the legislature’s actions are “laughable.”

His office tells KXAN the amount of money to pay for immigrant defense will be known in under two weeks. Most legal immigrant legal services involve paperwork for Visas, including U Visa, which are allotted to victims of violent crimes.

When asked directly if that policy would qualify it as a “sanctuary city” in the eyes of the Texas Conservative Coalition, one of its leaders, Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said “more and more so, yes.”

This debate escalated when Travis County Sheriff Hernandez announced earlier this month that she would only hold people for ICE deportations if they committed very serious, violent crimes. Earlier this week Gov. Abbott gave her an ultimatum: reverse policy or lose governor grant funding. Hernandez was elected by Travis County voters last November.

Abbott upped the ante on Fox News saying that he wanted the Texas legislature to create a law that would remove her if she doesn’t change policy. “If she doesn’t.. we’ll remove her from office,” he said.

It sparked Democratic Party outrage. “Typically people are elected by the voters. Democracy in fact works,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, “unless the Governor wants to be king and remove people from office unilaterally.”

The first public hearing on a bill banning “sanctuary cities” is next week. The scope of the punishment and who the law covers will be major sticking points in the Republican controlled state governments. Similar bills have never passed the state legislature.

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