Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott warned the Dallas County sheriff on Monday that her new and softer approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants who commit crimes “will no longer be tolerated in Texas,” but his office said any reforms will have to wait until 2017.
Abbott wrote a letter to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat, in the wake of reports that she planned to free some of the immigrants processed through the Dallas County jail rather than hand them over to federal authorities as requested. According to recent news reports, Valdez said her office would consider federal requests on a “case by case” basis and would not automatically honor requests to hold them for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“Your refusal to fully participate in a federal law enforcement program intended to keep dangerous criminals off the streets leaves the state no choice but to take whatever actions are necessary to protect our fellow Texans,” Abbott said. “Policies like yours compel Texas to take action to protect Texans’ safety.”
A call to the sheriff's office was not returned. In a statement issued through a spokesman to the Dallas Morning News, Valdez said that the new approach in her jail was "very similar" to the new federal policy, announced last November, meant to prioritize the removal of immigrants who commit serious crimes over those convicted of minor offenses.
In his letter, Abbott cited the case of Kate Steinle, who was shot and killed this summer in San Francisco. Her killer: an undocumented immigrant, deported multiple times, who had been released from jail after local authorities declined to hand him over to ICE, officials say.
"It is unacceptable for a Texas sheriff to take a similarly dangerous path by departing from the strictest ICE standards," Abbott said.
However, Abbott's office said any reforms will have to wait until the Legislature meets again in regular session in early 2017.
The governor is under increasing pressure from conservative activists in his party to act more quickly and call a special session to pass legislation banning “sanctuary” policies designed to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. The governor can call an unlimited number of 30-day sessions at his discretion.
"Why wait?" said JoAnn Fleming, director of Grassroots America We The People, a conservative group in East Texas that has been calling on Abbott to convene a special session on the issue. Fleming noted that officials in other counties, including Travis County, are pressing for a softer approach on undocumented immigrants in their jails.
"This is clearly a matter of grave urgency," Fleming wrote in response to Abbott's letter. "Only Governor Abbott can set this right, and we urge him to do it now. Waiting until 2017 to curtail lawlessness and to reduce the threats to public safety and national security is dangerous to Texas and the rest of the nation."
In his letter to Valdez, Abbott ticked off a list of possible reforms to consider, such as banning local authorities from passing sanctuary policies, making it illegal for a county sheriff to refuse a “detainer” request for an undocumented immigrant and making local authorities financially liable for actions of illegal immigrants who are released because a county sheriff failed to honor a detainer request.
Reaction to Abbott's letter broke down along familiar partisan lines. Conservative Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, cheered the governor's letter, saying that with "Governor Abbott publicly joining Lt. Governor Patrick and conservative members of the Texas Senate, I feel certain that we will end the harboring of those in this country illegally by rogue municipalities."
The liberal Texas Organization Project, meanwhile, blasted Abbott for "showing a jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy in trying to reverse the actions taken by the duly elected sheriff of Dallas County."
"Sheriff Lupe Valdez strengthened the trust and safety of her community when she decided to stop honoring ICE holds for people accused of minor offenses," said TOP's Dallas County office director Brianna Brown. "She should be applauded for doing the right thing, even while knowing it would pit her against the governor and his tea party cohorts."
Texas Tribune reporter Julian Aguilar contributed to this report.