AUSTIN, TX — The Texas House on Thursday gave final approval to ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” a term given to jurisdictions perceived to be less than aggressive in cooperating with federal immigration officials in deporting people suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
Dubbed Senate Bill 4, the measure was deemed a priority item for Gov. Greg Abbott. On Thursday afternoon, after 16 grueling hours of debate, the bill passed in a party-line vote, with 94 Republicans supporting it and 53 Democrats voting against it.
The bill next goes to the Senate toward making the bill for final approval before heading to Abbott’s desk for his signature.
The measure seeks to compel police officials to honor all federal requests by the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency to detain residents suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill also would ban local ordinances prohibiting officers from inquiring about immigration status when making an arrest.
There’s punitive measures, too, for the non-compliant. Law enforcement officials who fail to detain a person suspected of being undocumented would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $4,000, or both.
Many opposed the measure, packing the Capitol and surrounding grounds in protest of a bill they viewed draconian and discriminatory, painting it as nothing more than a “papers, please” legislation. Arguably the most emotional protest came from District 75 Rep. Mary González, taking the floor to oppose the measure for its potential to create fear among crime victims among the undocumented segment of society.
Some of those hesitant to report crime in the wake of the current immigrant crackdown are rape victims, González—a survivor of sexual assault herself—told her Republican colleagues.
“We aren’t trying to exaggerate when we say the people in the shadows will be in the shadows more,” she said. “We aren’t exaggerating when we say the people who will feel the biggest effect of this are the most vulnerable—the women and children who are survivors of sexual assault.”
Also opposing the bill are high-profile law enforcement officers who have long said the aggressive tactics outlined in the bill targets people solely based on their immigration status, yielding to an erosion of community trust in police. The measure already has sent a chilling effect throughout affected communities, whose members will likely become more averse to reporting crimes for fear of having their status discovered, detractors said.
In San Antonio, Police Chief William McManus outright called the bill discriminatory, a measure that would inevitably lead to racial or ethnic discrimination.
“You have an accent, you’re darker complected than I am, does that mean you’re not legal?” he told a reporter with the local Univision affiliate when asked for his reaction to the SB4 vote. “According to the bill, it might. It absolutely is profiling.”
Former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, now the chief in Houston, took to Twitter to air his own displeasure over the development. Acevedo has long been a critic of measures targeting minority communities to discern their members’ country of origin toward deportation, citing the corrosive effect such steps have on community policing.
Violent crime is on rise across our Nation & some would rather men & women in blue go after cooks & nannies, instead of hardened criminals.— Chief Art Acevedo (@ArtAcevedo) April 27, 2017
“Violent crime is on rise across our nation & some would rather men & women in blue go after cooks & nannies, instead of hardened criminals,” Acevedo wrote on Twitter the night after the vote. Minutes after that post, he added: “Law enforcement constantly being told TX can’t afford penalty enhancements to fight crime, but now we are being given unfunded mandates.”
Law enforcement constantly being told TX can’t afford penalty enhancements to fight crime, but now we are being given unfunded mandates.— Chief Art Acevedo (@ArtAcevedo) April 27, 2017
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has previously raised the ire of Abbott over her more nuanced approach to immigration enforcement, one focusing on honoring ICE detainer requests if they involve felons rather than undocumented immigrants without prior criminal histories. After the vote, she thanked Democrats who voted against the bill.
“I’m very proud of our Democrat delegation,” Hernandez said in a prepared statement. “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. They presented factual, common sense truths rather than fear based, misleading rhetoric. They recognized the cost of forcing local law enforcement to do the job of the federal government and the liability it places upon us.”
She concluded that those lawmakers voting for the measure have gained her admiration, despite of the unwanted outcome: “These men and women inspire me and I have great respect for the valiant fight they continue to wage for the sake of public safety in our great state.”
In Austin, city council member Greg Casar vowed to join the fight in challenging the bill should it become law—a development that now appears to be a foregone conclusion.
“It is inevitable that you will see cities and counties across the state suing the state,” Casar said, as quoted by the Austin American-Statesman. “The overreach is unprecedented.”
Comparisons to Arizona immediately began. In that state, Senate Bill 1070 forced police to ask about the immigration status of people pulled over during traffic stops, leading to boycotts against the state valued in the tens of millions of dollars.
A lawsuit against the Arizona measure reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was largely upheld but with the caveat that those detained shouldn’t be held for extended periods of time and lawsuits filed by those targeted be allowed to proceed through the court system. Many of the law’s original provisions were struck down after a majority of justices deemed them are preemptive of federal immigration laws.
Terri Burke, the Texas director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Statesman her staff already has been in contact with counterparts in Arizona for guidance on how to best mount a legal challenge in the Lone Star State, she told the Statesman.
“We are studying the bill,” Burke told the newspaper. “We are going to compare it to Arizona. We are reaching out to our offices there and we will be ready.”
Talk of challenging the bill have taken on themes of going into the battlefield, and lines are already being drawn by opponents of the measure. “We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war,” vowed District 38 Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Austin in a Twitter message.
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