Texas House Advances Ban on Sanctuary Cities

Texas Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, at podium, is surrounded by fellow lawmakers as he speaks against an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that has already cleared the Texas Senate and seeks to jail sheriffs and other officials who refuse to help enforce federal immigration law, Wednesday, April 26, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – After 16 hours of emotional debate that began Wednesday, the Texas House passed a bill to ban “sanctuary cities” and empower police officers to question the immigration status of anyone who is lawfully detained.

Senate Bill 4, which will also 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, was one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items this session.

The bill flew through the Senate in February, despite a deluge of public opposition and criticism that the bill is unconstitutional and would reduce the effectiveness of local law enforcement.

The House made significant changes to the bill as it went through committee, adding an amendment to specify that law enforcement officers could only inquire into the status of an arrested person, rather than any “lawfully detained person.”

But that language – which would, for example, allow officers to question the immigration status of people detained during routine traffic stops – was put back into the bill during the House debate that began Wednesday morning and ended early Thursday.

Debate stalled for nearly four hours as Democrats and Republicans tried to strike a deal to prevent the Republican-proposed amendment that put the “lawfully detained” language back into the bill, but a compromise could not be reached.

Democrats, who dressed in black and wore orange and black ribbons – a reference to the monarch butterflies that migrate between the U.S. and Mexico – tried every tactic to stall the inevitable passage of the bill. They raised several points of order, proposed more than 150 amendments, and made emotional and personal appeals to their colleagues. Several lawmakers broke down in tears as they shared their own immigration stories.

Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States as an infant, described the fear she felt living as an undocumented immigrant in Texas.

“During the time we lived in undocumented status, and although I was just a little girl, I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day,” Hernandez said. “The fear my parents experienced each day as their two little girls went to school, not knowing if there would be an immigration raid that day, and they wouldn’t be able to pick up their daughters from school and not knowing who would take care of them if they were deported.”

Hernandez’ story echoed much of the testimony that was shared by hundreds of members of the public who spoke against the bill at a hearing last month, where several children pleaded with lawmakers to stop the bill that would threaten their undocumented parents.

Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, struggled to speak through tears as he described the bill’s similarities to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, laws which he said were also created out of fear, hatred and misunderstanding.

“This is painful for me, because I’m an immigrant,” Wu said. “My parents are immigrants. I represent a district filled with immigrants. Some are here as refugees, some are here as citizens, some are here without papers, but they are all my people. They should be all our people.”

Throughout the debate, Democrats pleaded with their colleagues, asking for their mercy and their votes on amendments that would make slight changes to the bill to add protections for the most vulnerable people in their communities.

The Democrats also backed up their opposition to the bill with facts, noting that there are currently no cities or counties in Texas that actually qualify as “sanctuary cities,” and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

They also discussed the detrimental economic effects of making a huge population afraid of participating in their normal day-to-day activities.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said the bill was “built on a series of lies,” and that it was not really about protecting Texans from dangerous criminals, as Gov. Abbott had indicated in his State of the State address in January.

Most law enforcement agencies in the state strongly opposed the bill and testified that it would erode public trust, making communities less safe.

Anchia said the bill was actually part of a series of discriminatory legislation passed by the state government.

Since 2011, Anchia said, photo identification and redistricting bills affecting Hispanic Texans have been deemed six times by federal courts “not just to have discriminatory impact, but discriminatory intent.”

Also in 2011, Hispanics became the majority in Texas public schools, and lawmakers cut “a historic amount from public education that same year,” Anchia said.

“And then you guys come with this bill,” Anchia said. “In light of that entire context, how are we supposed to swallow this … Everybody says ‘it’s not me, I didn’t intend to do this, I’m not a racist,’ but it’s not really hard to connect the dots on this series of events since 2011.”

Anchia warned his colleagues that history would judge the Texas Legislature harshly for passing the bill.

Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, scored a victory with her amendment to allow local law enforcement agencies to prohibit their employees from assisting federal immigration officers at places of worship, but the majority of amendments proposed by the Democrats failed with votes along party lines.

As she fought for her amendment, Neave was on the fourth day of a hunger fast, inspired by civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez.

But by the end of the debate, Republicans had voted against amendments designed to protect children, domestic violence victims and veterans.

Late in the evening, as amendments were being swiftly shut down, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told his colleagues he could explain one of his proposed amendments better, “but it wouldn’t matter,” so he simply said: “This amendment is about freedom and justice and the American way.”

His amendment would have required citizens who complain to the attorney general about violations of the law on college campuses to include “facts that support the allegation” in their complaint. It failed.

The final vote on the bill, at 3 a.m. Thursday, came after Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, made a motion to group all remaining amendments — about 100 — and record them as failed.

The bill was passed with a 93-54 vote along party lines.

It will be finalized in a conference committee with the House and Senate before it is sent to Gov. Abbott for his signature.

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