DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to talk now about what it means to be a so-called sanctuary city under the presidency of Donald Trump. The label is used for cities that don't fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Yesterday, the president's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said that means consequences. He said he would make good on an executive order to withhold billions of dollars in federal funding for cities that refuse to hand over people who are in the country illegally.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators.
GREENE: Now, local officials in sanctuary cities say it is not their job to enforce federal immigration law and doing so erodes their relationship with immigrant communities. Sarah Eckhardt is the county judge who essentially serves as the mayor of Travis County, Texas, which includes the city of Austin. And she's on the line with us. Judge Eckhardt, good morning.
SARAH ECKHARDT: Good morning.
GREENE: So the attorney general said there if you don't help deport people with criminal records, you're putting your community at risk. Does he have a point?
ECKHARDT: There's been ample, ample studies that show that he doesn't have a point. The foreign-born don't behave in criminal ways the same way the American-born do. People who are immigrants pretty much stay out of jail. We have a very safe community in Travis County. You know, of course we're a border state, and we've always been Mexican and American. And we have an enviable crime rate. We have the lowest crime rate of any major metropolitan in Texas.
And I think that is because of our relationship with our community. They feel safe. They feel willing to come forward and hold perpetrators of crime accountable irrespective of where the victim was born or where the perpetrator was born.
GREENE: Let me just follow your line of argument here. You're suggesting that immigrant communities are less likely to commit crimes than the larger population, which means there would be no reason to focus somehow specially on that community?
ECKHARDT: There is no reason to focus especially on that community from a criminological standpoint. I'm a former prosecutor. And the way you hold people accountable is by having a relationship with your community so that they will show up when somebody harms them. And I don't think that they will when ICE agents are in your court house arresting them when they do.
GREENE: Can I just ask about a report I was looking at from the Department of Homeland Security? It said that your county refused more than 100 requests to detain people over the course of one week. And I was just looking through. These were people who they said were not documented who had been convicted of sexual assault, aggravated assault, domestic violence. I mean, why wouldn't following the federal government's request to detain those people not make your community safer?
ECKHARDT: These individuals were not convicted of those crimes. They were arrested for those crimes. And under the U.S. Constitution, irrespective of where you live or where you were born, a person stands accused and is able to bond out when they go before a judge and a judge makes a determination that they're no longer a risk to the community or a flight risk. So I want to make that distinction. Those individuals on that list were accused of crimes, not convicted of crimes.
GREENE: So ICE and the federal government are actually asking you to detain people who have been arrested but have not faced trial or been convicted of anything?
ECKHARDT: In some cases they have criminal histories, yes, but that list that you speak of was listing their arrest crime, not their convictions.
GREENE: Are you worried about losing federal funding with this threat from Jeff Sessions?
ECKHARDT: I'm very worried about losing federal funding, extremely worried about losing federal funding. We've enjoyed a long history of partnership with the federal government in the prosecution of state crimes. But the federal government has tipped over into a new regime that is requiring us to be conscripted as immigration officials.
GREENE: Is the regime that new? I mean, President Obama was seen as deporting a lot of people and also made similar threats and requests of sanctuary cities, right?
ECKHARDT: He did make those requests of cities all across the land and jails all across the land. But he also said I'm only going to do priority enforcement. And he ended up doing a type of enforcement that asked for cooperation only on extremely dangerous individuals who had been convicted previously of some really bad stuff.
GREENE: We'll have to leave it there. We're out of time, I apologize. Judge Sarah Eckhardt is essentially the mayor of Travis County, Texas. Thank you so much for the time this morning.
ECKHARDT: Thank you.
GREENE: And we do just want to clarify the report that Judge Eckhardt mentioned in that conversation. The judge said that federal authorities have been asking communities to detain people based just on criminal charges. That is true in some cases. In other cases, it was in fact for convictions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.