Everything you wanted to know about sanctuary cities

So-called sanctuary cities are facing scrutiny in Washington after an unauthorized immigrant and five-time deportee was charged this summer in the fatal shooting of a San Francisco woman. Despite his immigration status, the suspect was released from jail prior to the incident. As a matter of policy, San Francisco officials do not notify federal immigration authorities when such suspects are to be released.

The push among conservative lawmakers to ban sanctuary cities raises questions about how to define a sanctuary city and whether any exist in Texas.

What is Congress doing about sanctuary cities?

The U.S. House passed a bill last month that would make it illegal for cities to withhold information from federal authorities about a person’s immigration status that could lead to deportation. It specifically targets cities with policies that limit local law enforcement agencies from inquiring about any individual’s immigration status or policies that restrict communication with federal immigration authorities. Cities that do so would be ineligible for some federal law enforcement grants, including funds that reimburse local authorities for the cost of detaining unauthorized immigrants. The Senate has yet to take up the bill. President Barack Obama has said he would veto it.

What is a sanctuary city?

There is no legal definition of a sanctuary city, but generally speaking, a sanctuary city is considered a jurisdiction that limits cooperation with federal immigration officials to deport unauthorized immigrants. Law enforcement agencies that don’t help enforce immigration law say that if immigrants are afraid to report crimes to local police, it’s harder to promote public safety. Some cities, like San Francisco, do not typically hand over immigrants to federal authorities. Other cities have policies that limit when local officers can ask about immigration status or get federal immigration authorities involved.

Are there sanctuary cities in Texas?

It depends on who you ask. The American Civil Liberties Union says that there are no sanctuary cities in Texas because every law enforcement agency complies with the federal Priority Enforcement Program, which replaced the Secure Communities program in early July and requires local officials to enter detainees’ fingerprints into a federal immigration database. By complying with the Priority Enforcement Program, the ACLU said local law enforcement alert federal authorities to detainees’ immigration status. But some Republican Texas lawmakers say that there are several sanctuary cities in Texas, including Austin.

Would Texas cities or counties be affected by the bill?

It’s not clear what the bill means by “restricting communication” with federal authorities, so it’s hard to tell. If a city complies with the Priority Enforcement Program, it is considered to be in communication with federal authorities. However, some cities have policies that limit local officers’ work with federal authorities and prevent them from inquiring about immigration status except in certain situations.

The Travis County sheriff’s office prohibits officers from asking about immigration status unless a person is in custody, is a suspect for a non-immigration violation and the immigration status is relevant to the criminal investigation. Deputies also are not required to notify federal authorities, except in cases related to human trafficking or terrorist activity. In compliance with the Priority Enforcement Program, the sheriff’s office notifies federal authorities when a detainee will be released if the federal immigration officers ask.

Austin police cannot detain anyone just to determine immigration status, according to Austin police policies. If someone is found to be an unauthorized immigrant, police can detain them longer if federal immigration officers are contacted and can take custody of the person in a reasonable amount of time.

Houston bans officers from asking about people’s immigration status and will not contact federal authorities unless someone’s criminal charge is greater than a class C misdemeanor and the officer knows the person is an unauthorized immigrant.

ACLU senior policy strategist Matt Simpson said that Austin and Houston would likely have to change these policies if the bill pending in Congress were to become law.

However, University of Texas immigration law professor Diane Gilman said that, even though the potential impact of the bill is unclear, it’s possible that no Texas city would be affected since none outright bans local officials from communicating with federal immigration authorities or inquiring about immigration status.

“The problem is there is no clear definition of sanctuary cities inside or outside this bill,” Gilman said. “It’s hard to know what the impact would be anywhere.”

What is the Texas legislature doing about sanctuary cities?

State legislators have previously proposed bills that would outlaw sanctuary cities, most recently earlier this year, when lawmakers held hearings on a bill that would have prohibited local policies preventing local law enforcement from asking people they stop about immigration status. The bill did not pass, but on Aug. 5, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed that the Senate would pass legislation outlawing sanctuary cities during the Legislature’s next regular session in 2017.

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