A Texas House committee is considering significant changes to a bill aimed at banning so-called sanctuary cities — local jurisdictions that decline in some way to participate in federal immigration enforcement — that could limit the reach of the legislation.
A new version of Senate Bill 4 that was considered by the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday would alter the bill’s prohibition on sheriff and police departments adopting policies that prevent officers from inquiring about subjects’ immigration status. The change by the bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would only prohibit agencies from barring their officers from getting involved in immigration issues with people who have been arrested, and not merely detained, a broader category that includes anyone pulled over for a minor traffic violation.
While the tweak might temper some of the concerns raised by critics of the bill who say it will lead to racial profiling, Geren has maintained many of the Senate version’s harshest provisions, including ones creating a criminal offense for law enforcement officials who adopt sanctuary policies and stiff financial penalties for their agencies.
The El Paso Times first reported on proposed changes by Geren, who chairs the House Administration Committee and is a top ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.
The original version was authored by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and approved by the Senate last month in a 20-11 party-line vote. In addition to ensuring local officers could tackle immigration issues, it aimed to ban local jails from declining to honor federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detainers,” which are requests to extend the detention of inmates suspected of being in the country illegally for up to 48 hours for possible deportation proceedings.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who has instituted the state’s only county policy limiting a jail’s cooperation with federal ICE detainer requests, has become the face of the debate. Gov. Greg Abbott has already pulled back millions of dollars in state funding to Travis County in retaliation for her new policy, in which the county only honors detainer requests for inmates suspected of serious crimes such as murder and rape.
Abbott has made banning sanctuary cities one of his four “emergency items” for the current legislative session. He and other Republicans who back such a measure say it is needed to preserve the “rule of law” and to prevent unauthorized immigrants from committing crimes against U.S. citizens. They have gotten a boost from the election of President Donald Trump, who regularly points to crimes committed by immigrants as justification for his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to crack down on sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds.
Studies have shown, however, that immigrant communities typically have lower crime rates than the overall U.S. population.
As was the case when the Senate considered the measure, hundreds of people signed up to testify at Wednesday’s House hearing on SB 4, and a vast majority of them opposed it. Those who spoke against the bill Wednesday included Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, several unauthorized immigrants and top law enforcement officials from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.
Brian Manley, Austin’s interim police chief, said the bill would hurt public safety by eroding ties between the Police Department and immigrant communities, potentially making it less likely that crime victims and witnesses would come forward.
“We’ve worked so hard to build this trust,” Manley said. “I’m proud to be able to say, ‘If you see this patch and this badge, we’re focused on your safety, not your immigration status.’ (The bill) would take away from the ability to do that.”
Many of the bill’s critics testified Wednesday that they approved of Geren’s changes but still opposed the overall measure.
“I must say that we are gladdened and encouraged by the proposals that Chairman Geren has made in the proposed language,” said Gerald Pruitt, a deputy city attorney for Fort Worth. Nevertheless, he said, his city still opposes SB 4 because of a provision that allows victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants in a sanctuary city to sue the jurisdiction for damages.