When Gov. Greg Abbott sent a public letter last week reprimanding Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez for softening her approach to detaining undocumented immigrants booked into her jails, saying it posed a “serious danger to Texans” and may require state action, it confused many immigrant rights activists.

Not because the governor’s tone surprised them — it didn’t — but because Valdez, though a Democrat, was hardly a poster child for lenient enforcement of federal immigration law. Pro-immigrant groups have for years fought what they view as Valdez’s hardline policies toward the undocumented immigrants arrested in Dallas County.

“It’s very disappointing that she’s a Latina ... that she comes from an immigrant background, and she refuses to stand with the community,” said Carolina Canizales, the San Antonio-based deportation defense director of United We Dream, a national immigrant rights organization. “For us, she still has a lot of work to do." 

A week prior to Abbott’s letter, Valdez, who faces a lawsuit alleging that Dallas County has held immigrants for unconstitutionally long periods even after they received bond, said she would begin deciding case-by-case whether to honor federal immigration detainers for inmates.

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Valdez is not the only sheriff in the state in the hot seat over federal detainers, which ask county jails to hold undocumented immigrants with criminal records up to 48 hours after they are set to be released until they can enter federal custody.

The federal government’s overarching approach to illegal immigration remains at a boiling point in presidential politics, and efforts to address the issue nationwide have resulted in Congressional gridlock. Since his letter to Valdez, Abbott has kicked off a blitz of media appearances calling for a new state law to require compliance with federal policy.

But it’s local officials who find themselves at ground zero of the debate.

Battles over “sanctuary cities,” a loose term used to describe municipalities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, are currently brewing in a handful of Texas counties. 

Democrats in San Antonio are seeking to make “sanctuary city” an official label. There, as in cities across Texas, police officers do not have a practice of asking the immigration status of people they arrest. That duty is supposed to fall on county jail officials — and it’s one that the Bexar County Sheriff’s office does not appear to be dropping soon.

“We uphold the law and we carry out the law, and it’s in our best interests to work and cooperate with other agencies including [U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement],” said Bexar County Sheriff spokesman James Keith. “We’re not arresting people who have not committed crimes. We are arresting people who have committed crimes. It’s determined after that by ICE whether they are here illegally. Once their charges are addressed, then ICE has the right to request a detainer hold; then at that time, they go into ICE custody.”

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Similarly, the Harris County Sheriff's office does not limit its cooperation with immigration officials, although Houston is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a sanctuary city. 

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, a Democrat, is under increasing pressure from a coalition of city officials in Austin to stop honoring the detainer requests.

Alejandro Caceres, an immigrant rights activist who has fought to push local officials to abandon enforcement of federal immigration policies since he moved to the city in 2010, said the issue has begun to gain traction.

“People are starting to realize that the city of Austin, which considers itself the liberal oasis of Texas, still has some of the highest deportation rates in the United States because of their sheriff,” said Caceres, who currently leads the group ICE Out Of Austin. “But at the end of the day, it’s his jail, he can do whatever he wants with it. And he’s made it very clear that he’s not going to change his mind no matter what.”

Both the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court approved a symbolic measure instructing Hamilton to limit his office’s cooperation with federal authorities in October. During the county commissioner’s meeting, a proposal was even floated for the City of Austin to run its own jails, severing the agreement it has maintained with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for more than two decades. All Democrats in the race to replace Hamilton, who has until early December to decide whether he will run again, have said they would end enforcement of the program.

Opponents of strict immigration enforcement by local officials argue that, despite recent efforts to focus only on the most serious offenders, undocumented immigrants who have committed minor crimes get swept into deportation proceedings, breaking up families.

“Our ideal situation would be for there to be no ICE collaboration whatsoever,” said Canizales. “I think they shouldn’t condemn thousands of undocumented immigrants for one crime that has been committed.”

High-profile city police chiefs, including San Antonio’s Bill McManus and Austin’s Art Acevedo, have also said checking immigration status hinders policing strategies, sometimes by making members of communities with high numbers of undocumented immigrants less likely to report crimes.

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But others in law enforcement argue that what happens in the booking process once an arrest has already been made is a separate issue.

Hamilton, who took office in 2005, has long defended his cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, saying that the programs keep dangerous people off the streets.

It is a matter of law enforcement agencies at all levels working together, said Maj. Wes Priddy, the chief administrator for Travis County jails. But he added that he felt there was also a general misunderstanding about how the sheriff’s office operates.

“I think there are some people who still believe that the sheriff’s office is working as immigration agents and that we are actively picking people up because they are in the country illegally, that we are actively involved in deporting people,” he said. “I do think that some out in the public are not fully informed of what our role is.”

As for the plight of undocumented immigrants arrested for crimes and facing separation from their families, Priddy said that their actions landing them in jail to begin with are to blame, not federal authorities.

“We have to concern ourselves with enforcing the law — not that we are not compassionate, but we have to stay focused on the public safety aspect,” he said. “If we have to go out and investigate a crime, we aren’t concerned about whether an individual is in the country illegally. We don’t place detainers on people, we don’t deport them, we really don’t have a concern regarding that. We are concerned with maintaining public safety and enforcing the laws that we are charged to enforce.”