After debating for 16 hours and giving preliminary approval at 3 a.m. Thursday to a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities, Texas House members got a few hours of sleep and returned to work later in the day to give final approval in a 94-53 vote. All Democrats present voted “no.”
Senate Bill 4, authored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and carried in the House by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, imposes stiff financial penalties on local governments that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement.
The Senate approved the bill in February, and Gov. Greg Abbott has made signing it into law one of his top priorities for the legislative session. Next, a select committee of House and Senate members will negotiate differences between the two chambers’ versions before the Legislature sends it to Abbott’s desk.
Although they had few options, Democrats on Thursday afternoon had kept up their attempts to derail the legislation. Presaging expected court challenges, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, proposed a failed amendment that would have delayed implementation of the bill until the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on its constitutionality.
“We know we’re going to go to court, we know we’re going to fight in court, and it’s my opinion our side is going to win,” Alonzo said, referring to opponents of the bill.
The marathon debate strained relationships within and between the parties, and the combatants weren’t ready to bury the hatchet by Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been very hard for me to look at any of you because I’m filled with a lot of sadness,” Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said on the House floor.
Texas Republicans, Anchia said, are on the wrong side of history for supporting laws he views as targeting racial minorities, including SB 4 and election laws that federal courts have found to be discriminatory.
“It’s the record of this House. It’s the record of this House leadership,” said Anchia, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
Perry said Thursday that he sees few serious divisions between the House- and Senate-approved versions of the bill and expects the conference committee process to go smoothly.
“I’m really excited that the House did a great job,” he said. “This is still a strong bill.”
Bill broadened after deal falls through
In the most dramatic moment of Thursday’s House floor debate, lawmakers restored a provision that was included in Perry’s Senate-approved version of the bill but was scaled back by Geren in a House committee.
The provision bans police departments from keeping their officers from inquiring about immigration status of anyone who is “detained,” a broad category that includes people in routine traffic stops. Geren’s revision had limited the provision to people who had already been arrested, but tea party-aligned Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, proposed an amendment on Thursday to revert to Perry’s language.
House Democrats had an opportunity to avoid a vote on the Schaefer amendment, which they say will lead to racial profiling of Latinos, but they didn’t act quickly enough to accept an offer to strike a deal with Republicans.
Schaefer said late Wednesday that there was a time during the afternoon that he had agreed to pull the amendment down as part of a larger deal that would end the lengthy House floor debate, which he characterized as a Democratic attempt to filibuster the bill.
During a four-hour pause in the debate, the GOP and Democratic caucuses met several times during negotiations over the deal. Democrats met behind closed doors twice to debate whether to accept offers from the Republicans in which they would give up many of the amendments they had planned in exchange for the House avoiding votes on Schaefer’s measure and potentially on other conservative-driven amendments.
But they never reached an agreement on how to proceed, said Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville.
Eventually, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a high-ranking Republican from Angleton, interrupted their meeting to say the offer had expired. Schaefer’s amendment was approved 81-64.
“It had been too long,” Bonnen said.
Lucio said it had been difficult to reach consensus because the issue was so emotionally charged for Democrats.
“Some people feel you need to fight at all costs. Other people feel you need to have a plan of action,” said Lucio, who added that he wasn’t speaking for the caucus as a whole.
Lucio stressed that Democrats never turned down an offer from Republicans but were given an arbitrary deadline without warning.
“We never officially turned it down, but we were just told we ran out of time,” he said.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said that Bonnen interrupted the Democratic meeting after they only had 15 minutes to consider the most recent counteroffer from the GOP, which she took as a sign that they could no longer keep up their end of the bargain.
“Their deal fell apart,” she said.
Local officials react
After the initial vote, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who has been at the center of the debate over the issue of sanctuary cities, praised her fellow Democrats in the House for their efforts to quash the measure.
“They truly listened to leaders in both law enforcement and communities of faith, as well as the people we are sworn to protect and serve,” Hernandez said in a statement. “They presented factual, common-sense truths rather than fear-based, misleading rhetoric.”
Hernandez has received national attention due to her policy of refusing to honor most U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests for county jail inmates suspected of being unauthorized immigrants. Her policy does comply with the requests, however, when they are accompanied by a judicial warrant or court order, or if the individual has been charged with or convicted of serious crimes such as capital murder or aggravated sexual assault.
That policy would be in violation of SB 4 and could result in Hernandez facing criminal charges. The sheriff didn’t say Thursday whether she will make any policy changes when the law goes into effect but has previously said she will comply with state law.
Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley also spoke out against the bill, saying it would damage his officers’ relationship with vulnerable populations in Austin, resulting in a less safe community.
“We will work with our legal advisers to determine if we need to change any policies,” he said. “As far as a day-to-day practice, although the bill in its current form says police chiefs cannot discourage their officers from asking questions about immigration on a detention, I do not believe that the men and women at APD have a desire to do that. I do believe that their focus is on keeping this community safe.”
Staff writer Mark D. Wilson contributed material.