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Texas Gov. Abbott springs surprise on critics, with unannounced Facebook live signing of sanctuary cities ban

Gov. Greg Abbott made an unannounced appearance on Facebook live on May 7 to sign a bill banning “sanctuary cities” in the state. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/The Washington Post)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made an unannounced appearance on Facebook live Sunday evening to sign a tough bill banning “sanctuary cities” in the state, thereby avoiding demonstrations opponents planned for later in the week when they thought he was going to put his signature on the legislation.

While Abbott’s spokesman said he was just trying to reach a wide audience, critics called Abbott “cowardly” for springing the signing without notice.

Though the bill, which cleared the Republican-controlled legislature last week, was opposed by most major police chiefs in Texas, Abbott said in a statement that the law was a blow against “those that seek to promote lawlessness in Texas.”

Abbott also blasted the one law enforcement officer in Texas who appears to have adopted any sort of policy resembling the amorphous concept of a sanctuary city, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who said she would not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold immigrants while federal authorities investigate their status.

“This law cracks down on policies like the Travis County sheriff who declared she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes,” Abbott said.

In fact, Hernandez does honor detainer requests from federal immigration authorities for inmates accused of serious offenses.

Texas governor poised to sign nation’s harshest anti-sanctuary bill

The term “sanctuary cities” is ill-defined and takes different forms in different places. In general, jurisdictions identifying themselves as sanctuaries refuse to hold immigrants who have been arrested for local crimes past their release date so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can take them into federal custody and try to deport them.

The Texas law would fine local governments up to $25,500 a day for policies that block immigration enforcement. Elected or appointed officials who refuse to cooperate with immigration agents could lose their jobs. Sheriffs and other police officers would face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail and fines if they ignore requests to detain immigrants. The law would take effect Sept. 1.

Abbott’s decision to sign the bill was no surprise. But holding the signing ceremony on a Facebook live stream was unprecedented, according to Texas media.

“We’re going to where most people are getting their news nowadays and talking directly to them instead of speaking through a filter,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement. 

The governor’s communications director, Matt Hirsch, boasted on Twitter of having 101,000 views and “400,398 people reached” and “it’s only been an hour.”

“I’m not sure all of that is positive,” someone wrote in response. “Coward,” wrote another. “Afraid of all the police chiefs who spoke out against the bill?” said a third.

“Quite frankly I think it was a cowardly way to do it,” state Rep. César Blanco, a Democrat representing El Paso, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think he wanted to get it done quickly with less friction.”

It was unusual for the governor to skip the typical fanfare and ceremony surrounding the signing of a bill, and to sign it in a way that did not include the speaker of the House or the lieutenant governor.

“This is red meat for his base,” Blanco said. “This is for his primary voters, not for mainstream Texas.”

President Trump has threatened to go after sanctuary cities. This how state and local governments with sanctuary policies are responding to possible action. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Immigration advocates and some members of the media had expected the signing to come Monday or later, and opponents of the bill had been organizing rallies and protests around the expected public signing ceremony, said Texas state Rep. Victoria Neave, a Democrat and fierce opponent of the bill who fasted for four days last month in protest.

“We anticipated it to be more public, especially since this was one of his top priorities,” Neave said in an interview with The Post. “They expected him to be there and to be more public so people could raise their voices.”

The unexpected timing did not stop protesters, however. A growing crowd gathered outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on Sunday evening for a vigil and protest in response to the bill’s signing. Immigrant rights activists shouted “here to stay” and held up a banner with the words “Abbott is a racist.”

“Today, on a Sunday, on the Lord’s day, he decides to sign this bill,” one protester shouted into a megaphone. “This bill that will terrorize communities.”

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Blanco said it was “disrespectful” to sign the legislation — which faced fierce opposition from pastors and church organizations — on a Sunday, when many Latino and immigrant families are at church.

“It’s ironic that he does it on a Sunday when families are together and this legislation is only going to tear families apart,” Blanco said.

The bill, which opponents promised to challenge in court, exposed a divide between the state’s top elected officials and its major law enforcement officers similar to the rift surrounding the Trump administration’s attempt to punish sanctuary cities, which has been held up at least temporarily by a federal court.

“We officers work extremely hard to build and maintain trust, communication, and stronger relationships with minority communities through community based policing and outreach programs,” said a commentary endorsed by the top cops in Dallas, Houston, Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth and San Antonio, along with the executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association.

“Broad rules,” such as those in the new law, “will further strain the relationship between local law enforcement and these diverse communities” at a time with “distrust and fear of contacting or assisting the police has already become evident among legal immigrants.”