AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - Texas is one step closer to banning “sanctuary cities,” after the state senate voted late Tuesday to advance a bill that would require local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.
The measure, Senate Bill 4, would punish local governments and college campus police units that refuse to comply with detainer requests from immigration officers to hand over immigrants for possible deportation.
In a raucous, 16-hour Senate State Affairs Committee hearing last week, several hundred people testified against the bill, arguing it is a discriminatory, anti-immigrant measure designed to increase deportations of people who may be in the country illegally but are otherwise law-abiding.
In addition to predicting that the bill would force terrified undocumented immigrants into the shadows, critics of the bill have questioned its constitutionality and say it will reduce local law enforcement’s effectiveness.
The bill’s author, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said during the debate on the measure Tuesday that it ensures that law enforcement agencies across the state follow the same procedures and that “laws are applied without prejudice and equally no matter who’s in elected capacity.”
“At the end of the day SB 4 has everything to do with the rule of law and has very little to do with immigration,” Perry said.
He said there has been much “fear-mongering” and misinformation spread about his bill, arguing it protects victims and witnesses to crime and does not apply to public schools, hospitals or places of worship.
Only those that commit crimes should fear the bill, he added, and other Republican senators said it was “sad” that people were “unnecessarily frightened” by SB 4.
“It may be a shame that people are afraid, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re afraid,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We need to be really clear who we consider a criminal, because many, maybe some here on the senate floor, think if you’re here undocumented, you are a criminal. So if you carry that definition forward, there are millions of Texans, documented and undocumented, that are scared to death.”
Whitmire and other senate Democrats contended during debate Tuesday that the bill could open the door to racial profiling, as it gives officer's discretion over whether to question a person’s immigration status.
“Discretion and profiling are synonymous quite often on the streets of Texas,” Whitmire said.
Democratic senators also questioned the constitutionality of the bill, pointing to a Jan. 17 Dallas federal court ruling in Mercado v. Dallas County. U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater found that Dallas County violated the constitutional rights of arrested individuals by refusing to grant them immediate release on bond and by holding them based on immigration detainers after they were otherwise eligible for release.
However, in a letter sent to Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, before the debate Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated that the Mercado ruling doesn’t square with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Zadvydas v. Davis that civil detentions are constitutionally permissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
“Our review of the law concludes [SB 4] is constitutional, there are viable methods for covered entities to avoid liability regarding invalid detainers, and the remainder of the legal concerns are unfounded,” Paxton said in the letter.
Mirroring President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order that seeks to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, the Texas bill would cut grant funding to cities and college campus police units that adopt sanctuary policies.
The bill will also allow government officials to be sued by victims of crimes committed by released undocumented inmates.
An amendment to the bill adopted by the senate Tuesday adds an additional punishment, charging department heads who violate the law with a class A misdemeanor, which means they could face up to a year in prison.
“What’s the next [amendment] going to do, take your firstborn?” Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, asked Perry.
The misdemeanor amendment seemed to be aimed particularly at Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, an elected official who presides over an area that includes the city of Austin. Hernandez has pledged to restrict deputies’ compliance with federal detention requests and end U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents’ access to the county jail.
Following through on a threat to “hammer” Travis County as a punishment for Hernandez’ defiance, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pulled more than $1.5 million in criminal justice grant funding from the county last week. The grants support programs that help children, women, families and veterans.
In response, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, launched a fundraising initiative called #StrongerTogether, asking the public to step in to cover the grants removed by Abbott.
“We will help to fill the gap and work with Travis County to ensure that the people who have benefitted from the victim services, criminal diversion and rehabilitation programs at risk do not suffer,” Rodriguez said in a press release. “In the long-term, reasonable people must hold the Governor to account for his vindictive behavior at the ballot box.”
As of Tuesday, the initiative has raised just over $100,000, with 1563 donations.
In an op-ed published in the Austin American-Statesman on Monday, Hernandez said she never imagined the policy she put in place to protect officers and the community would be “entered into political theater” and “pushed into the national media spotlight.”
She said that violent criminals who are found undocumented and arrested for capital murder, first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault and continuous human trafficking will be turned over to federal authorities.
“As a sheriff and as a sworn officer, it is my job to follow and uphold the law,” Hernandez said. “However it is also my job to recognize that the legal landscape regarding ICE detainers has changed. The Department of Homeland Security proclaimed these holds to be voluntary — and court decisions across our nation called the validity of these holds into question.”
Defiance against anti-sanctuary city policies is cropping up in cities across the state.
Police chiefs in Houston and San Antonio, which both have significant immigrant populations, have spoken against SB 4, saying that it will erode trust between local law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
On Tuesday, Dallas County commissioners passed the symbolic “Welcoming Communities” resolution that says unauthorized immigrants are integral members of the community and calls for local law enforcement to end nonessential collaborations with immigration officers.
SB 4 must now go through the state House before it is signed into law.
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