Texas Senate gives initial OK to ‘sanctuary cities’ bill


Bill aims to bar police and sheriff’s departments from declining to participate in immigration enforcement.

Approval was along party lines.

Senate is expected to give final approval Wednesday; bill next heads to the House.

As Austin takes center stage in the national debate over so-called sanctuary cities, the Texas Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that aims to prohibit police and sheriff’s departments from declining to participate in federal immigration enforcement.

After six hours of debate, senators Tuesday night voted 20-11 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. The Senate likely will give final approval to the bill when it meets Wednesday, sending it to the Texas House.

“This bill ensures that there is predictability, that our laws are applied without prejudice no matter who is in an elected capacity,” Perry said during the floor debate. “It’s about maintaining the integrity of the legal system … so people get the same deal no matter where they live.”

Democrats, however, said the bill could open the door to racial profiling because it prohibits law enforcement agencies from discouraging their officers from inquiring about subjects’ immigration status.

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State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said the bill “will be read as the right to profile” by some officers. “To some degree, I think this bill will provide cover for those few bad actors,” he said.

Perry countered that the bill explicitly prohibits racial discrimination, as does current state and federal law. Those laws, however, haven’t prevented Texas officers from stopping and searching black and Latino motorists more frequently than Anglos, analyses of state data have shown.

After 16 hours of testimony, almost all from members of the public who showed up to criticize the bill, the State Affairs Committee last week approved it on a 7-2 party-line vote.

The bill is a top priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate. It faces greater uncertainty in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, hasn’t listed it among his top priorities.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has directed his administration to prepare to combat so-called sanctuary cities nationwide and has said he will consider withholding federal funds from them.

In addition to allowing all law enforcement officers in Texas to ask people about their immigration status, Senate Bill 4 would require county jails to honor federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to extend the detention of inmates suspected on being in the United States illegally. The extended detentions, which typically last about 48 hours, are meant to give time for federal authorities to pick up the suspects before they leave the jail on bond.

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The bill cuts state funding off from local jurisdictions that adopt policies, written or unwritten, that defy the bill. It also allows victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants in those jurisdictions to sue the government agency for damages. An amendment by Perry would allow local officials who institute “sanctuary” policies to be charged with a crime.

Almost all amendments offered by Democrats — including one by state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin that would have exempted state grants for mental health services from being withheld from cities and counties defying the bill — were rejected along party lines.

Tuesday’s vote came as a showdown escalates between Gov. Greg Abbott and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who has limited the Travis County Jail’s cooperation with the ICE since taking office last month.

In response, Abbott has already moved to cut off almost $2 million in grants to Travis County and has vowed to find more ways to “hammer” the county. The money lost already could cost the county 18 jobs.

Under Hernandez’s policy, the jail only cooperates with the ICE detention requests when the federal agency has a court-issued warrant or the inmate is accused of murder, sexual assault or human trafficking.

Since the policy took effect, ICE and federal prosecutors have sped up the process for obtaining warrants for inmates suspected of having immigration violations in the Travis County Jail.

As Republicans move to force cities and counties to comply with ICE requests, the constitutionality of those requests is being called into question. In October, a federal judge in Illinois prohibited ICE from issuing those requests in six states.

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