Texas House considers limiting reach of ‘sanctuary cities’ bill


Highlights

A change narrows the bill’s focus to those arrested, not just detained.

The bill still maintains harsh penalties for local officials and jurisdictions that adopt “sanctuary” policies.

The bill passed the Texas Senate last month on a party-line vote.

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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Texas News & Politics

Residents sue Central Health over funding of UT Dell Medical School
Residents sue Central Health over funding of UT Dell Medical School

After five years of arguing that the Travis County health district’s voter-approved contributions of taxpayer money to the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School are unlawful, activists have finally put the issue into the hands of a Travis County state judge. Travis County voters agreed in 2012 to raise Central Health’s property...
Judge: Stop blocking abortion for teen immigrant in Texas
Judge: Stop blocking abortion for teen immigrant in Texas

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Trump administration officials to stop blocking a pregnant 17-year-old immigrant from having an abortion while she’s being detained in Texas after crossing the Mexican border without authorization. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan of Washington, D.C., ordered administration officials to allow the teenager...
Court: Examine if Austin crime lab botched death penalty evidence
Court: Examine if Austin crime lab botched death penalty evidence

The state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday ordered a closer examination of death row inmate Areli Escobar’s claims that shoddy work by the Austin police crime lab compromised evidence in his case. Escobar is seeking to have his conviction overturned, and a new trial ordered, after a Travis County jury sentenced him to death in the...
Houston school district apologizes for altering homecoming queen's photo
Houston school district apologizes for altering homecoming queen's photo

When Ebony Smith was awarded the homecoming queen honors last week at a Houston-area school, she posed for the photo in a purple-jeweled crown nestled on her purple-dyed hair. The brightly colored hair is a dress code violation at North Shore Senior High School in Galena Park, just east of Houston, but how the school handled it caught everyone off...
Austin to celebrate Día de los Muertos across city
Austin to celebrate Día de los Muertos across city

In addition to signature events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South by Southwest, Austin hopes to be known for its Day of the Dead festivities. On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler announced plans for a citywide Día de los Muertos celebration aimed at boosting the visibility of the city’s diverse arts, increasing tourism...
More Stories