Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday embraced cracking down on local governments that ban police from asking about a person's immigration status, after previously saying little about contentious "sanctuary city" policies since taking office.
His support follows conservative activists criticizing the Republican governor for not prioritizing get-tough immigration measures early in his term. It also follows the Dallas County jail recently deciding it would no longer honor all detainer requests from federal immigration agents in the nation's seventh-largest lockup.
"Sanctuary cities" has no legal meaning, but the term has become shorthand describing cities that provide refuge to people living in the country without legal permission.
"Texas must pass laws that prohibit any policy or action like yours that promotes sanctuary to people in this state illegally," Abbott wrote in a letter to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman confirmed that the governor wants the issue on the table when the Legislature returns in 2017.
Despite overwhelming Republican majorities, the Texas Legislature has failed to pass sanctuary cities proposals in three consecutive sessions. That includes 2011 when then-Gov. Rick Perry declared it a priority during the run-up to his White House candidacy, and this year, when tea party leaders wrested control of the state Senate.
But outrage reignited nationally this summer after a woman was fatally shot in San Francisco by a Mexican national who had been released from jail despite a federal detainer request. Last week in Congress, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican bill that would have punished jurisdictions that don't share immigration information or cooperate with federal requests. The White House had threatened a veto.
In September, Valdez said the Dallas jail would no longer extend the stay of suspects who are in the country illegally and suspected of minor crimes. The move by the elected Democrat follows hundreds of counties and cities nationwide that have also restricted their participation in the contentious detainer program run by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
That apparently sparked Governor Abbott's letter.
"Dallas is not a sanctuary city,” said Dallas lawyer and activist Domingo Garcia. “Sheriff Valdez does not have sanctuary policies. She's following Homeland Security guidelines, which is they want to hold violent criminals who are criminals to be detained.”
Garcia called Governor Abbott's letter scare tactics an an outrageous distortion of facts.
He argues that the sheriff's guidelines are very similar to a new Homeland Security program called Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP.
“This is just the governor playing politics, saying they are sanctuary cities,” said Garcia. “It's red meat for the right wing part of Texas."
Irving State Representative Matt Rinaldi says every individual arrested should be subject to an immigration check -- not just those held on violent crimes.
"You don't get arrested for speeding,” said Rinaldi. “You get arrested for drunk driving; you get arrested for violent crimes. There's any number of ways you can go through our justice system. We're not talking about routine traffic stops."
There has been no formal statement from the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department yet. FOX 4 is told it will come Tuesday.
But a sheriff's spokesman did release statistics intended to show that Dallas is not a sanctuary county, and that Sheriff Valdez is cooperating fully with federal immigration officials and has never rejected one of their detainers.
According to figures released by the sheriff's office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, put detainers on nearly 1,500 individuals over the last fiscal year, and the sheriff’s department declined none of them.
Big-city sheriffs have often told Texas lawmakers that sanctuary city laws would impose a chilling effect in immigrant communities and dissuade them from seeking help or helping police solve crimes.
Abbott, who aggressively courted Hispanic voters last year with an emphasis unmatched by a Texas Republican since George W. Bush was governor, had largely ducked taking a vocal position on an issue that Democrats say is anti-immigrant. He had deflected questions about proposals by saying he would look at any bill and described sanctuary cities as a symptom of the federal government not securing the border.
His stance, however, is unsurprising as a Republican who approved a record $800 million for border security in his first budget. Democrats accused Abbott of seizing on the current mood of conservative voters.
"He's trying to be the Donald Trump of Texas," said Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia, whose district covers the Dallas jail.
JoAnn Fleming, an influential Texas conservative activist who advised the lieutenant governor this spring on legislation, said there was disappointment that Abbott had not used his "political capital" before but was optimistic now.
"Governor Abbott and his staff are very aware of where the Texas grassroots think about this item. We've been very vocal," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.