State ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ weakens Texas morally and economically

If Texas Republican lawmakers were listening to police chiefs of major cities — including Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth — they would know that Senate Bill 4, which is aimed at banning so-called sanctuary cities, would hinder rather than help officers keep communities safe.

If they were listening to Texas faith-based communities, including the Diocese of Austin, they would know SB4 was antithetical to Judeo-Christian principals that promote welcoming the sojourner and treating all people with dignity, especially those fleeing tyranny, oppression, violence and poverty.

If they were talking to many business leaders — especially in the tech and medical sectors — they would know that SB4 creates a perception that Texas is anti-immigrant or perhaps racist, which could chill efforts to recruit the brightest and best talent from across the world, causing companies to think twice – if at all – about relocating to the Lone Star State.

And if they were listening to the hundreds of people who crowded the Senate chamber at the Capitol on Thursday, many of whom testified against the bill, they would know SB4 will drive hard-working families into the shadows and generate anxiety — even among legal residents — that they will be racially profiled by law enforcement.

But they’re not listening. Despite their politeness in handling the children, fathers, mothers, police chiefs, educators, health care workers, clergy and community leaders who testified before the senate’s State Affairs Committee, GOP senators passed the bill out of committee. It is expected to be voted on by the full Senate as early as Tuesday.

Tragically, Republican state senators – and those who back SB4 — are engaged in an extreme and divisive endeavor, which is overly broad, vengeful and intimidating. It smacks of Arizona’s “show-me-your papers bill.”

GOP state senators, urged on by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, pulled a sledgehammer from their tool box to deal with a situation that could have been addressed with a scalpel.

At the center of the debate over so-called sanctuary cities is a new policy implemented last week by Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez. It stipulates that the Travis County jail honor only federal detention requests without warrants for inmates accused of certain violent crimes, such as murder and rape. But Hernandez said the jail no longer would honor detainers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for inmates charged with other violent crimes, such as indecency with a child, assault of a peace officer or aggravated robbery.

That drew the ire of Abbott, who moved swiftly to make good on his threat to cut off about $1.5 million in state funding to Travis County. We disagree with that, as it targets programs such as the county’s veterans’ court and services for victims of crime.

But at least the consequence was narrowly constructed and proved effective in getting Abbott what he wanted from sheriffs across Texas, with the exception of Travis County.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles told the El Paso Times last month that he signed a letter from the governor’s office that requires his office to honor federal requests to detain suspected undocumented immigrants at the county jail.

Last year, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez made changes to decrease her jail’s cooperation with ICE, though not as sweeping as those by Hernandez. She received a letter from Abbott threatening to cut off state funding, which didn’t happen after she clarified that her policy made only modest changes and would continue cooperation with ICE regarding violent offenders.

Clearly, very few law enforcement agencies in Texas have declined to assist federal immigration enforcement officials. Yet, SB4 goes beyond dealing with county jails’ compliance with ICE.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether policies limiting compliance with ICE regarding violent offenders are politically wise, given the landscape at the Legislature. But it should be locally elected officials who determine such things, as they are accountable to the local communities they serve.

Clearly SB4 is a sledgehammer with some egregious provisions that would open the door to circumstances in which state and local law officers are enforcing federal immigration laws and racially profiling people.

To that point, the legislation seeks to dismantle policies that prohibit or discourage police, jail personnel and other officials from inquiring about the immigration status of anybody who has been arrested or detained. So, for instance, it will be left to individual officers to determine when and whether to ask someone his or her immigration status on a routine traffic stop.

And while there are protections in state law against racial profiling, proving that becomes far more difficult. It won’t be only undocumented people who get caught up in that racial web; legal residents of Hispanic descent and other nonwhite people will be more vulnerable to racial profiling and humiliation.

For their part, local police would be burdened with an unfunded mandate as they carry out additional duties that divert them from their jobs safeguarding Austin and other cities. And consider the chilling effect such tactics will have on segments of communities that will avoid reporting crimes or cooperating as witnesses out of fear they will be asked about their immigration status or deported.

Another egregious – and probably unprecedented – measure would permit victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions to sue local governments.

In 2010, when Arizona passed its feared “show-me-your-papers” law, which required officers to demand proof of a person’s immigration status, it ended up in legal battles. But it was the threatened boycotts by businesses and city officials across the country that hammered the nail into SB 1070’s coffin.

If this measure passes the Senate, then the Texas House would be wise to step on the brakes – if not for moral reasons, then for the economic pain it most certainly will cost Texans.

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