Texas Senate votes to OK contentious 'sanctuary cities' bill

AP News
Posted: Feb 07, 2017 8:58 PM
Texas Senate votes to OK contentious 'sanctuary cities' bill

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate on Tuesday night preliminarily approved an anti-"sanctuary cities" bill punishing local governments that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities, as state Republicans look to further crack down on an issue already championed by President Donald Trump.

The 20-11 vote along party lines came after hours of sometimes-emotional debate and clears the way for the proposal to sail through the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature in record time after stalling in previous sessions. It still needs final Senate approval later in the week, then must clear the state House, both of which appear likely. Gov. Greg Abbott has made the bill an "emergency item" greatly speeding up the process.

Republicans swatted down a parade of amendments meant to weaken the bill and other fierce objections from Democrats, who didn't have the votes to stop it. A protest from demonstrators who had previously threatened to descend on the Texas Capitol and voice loud opposition didn't happen, and a long day and evening in the Senate stayed eerily quiet.

Things were different last week, when hundreds of people spent 16-plus hours pleading with a Senate committee not to advance the bill but were ignored in a post-midnight vote that set up Tuesday's floor debate. Republicans muscling the measure toward final approval say it's too urgent to delay.

The term "sanctuary cities" has no legal definition, but Republicans want local police to enforce federal immigration law as part of a larger effort to crack down on criminal suspects who are in the United States illegally. The issue has become contentious in states across the country, especially with Trump promising to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, wall off the entire U.S.-Mexico border and impose strict federal immigration policies.

Texas' bill applies to local police forces and law enforcement on college campuses, and seeks to strip authorities of state-controlled grant funding from local jurisdictions that don't hand over immigrants already in custody awaiting possible deportation. It calls for fines for noncompliant counties and even mandates possible jail time for individual police officials who refuse.

Supporters say local law enforcement agencies must enforce the law. Bill sponsor Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock in West Texas, blamed some of the opposition to the bill on "fear mongering" and read a list of people from Texas who were killed by immigrants in the country illegally.

"This is not a deportation bill," Perry said. "My bill doesn't affect those (immigrants) who are here, working and feeding their families as long as they don't break the law."

But opponents say it opens the door to discrimination and intimidation.

Although some law enforcement groups support the proposal, many individual sheriffs and police chiefs in heavily Democratic areas have long opposed enforcing federal immigration law, warning it will make their jobs harder if immigrant communities, including crime victims and witnesses, become afraid of police. Perry countered that his bill bars police from asking victims and witnesses about their immigration status.

"Police across our state say this will make our state more unsafe," said Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat. "Asking 'Where you from?' is synonymous with (racial) profiling on the streets of Texas."

Although most local jails do cooperate, the debate has found a lightning rod in Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat from Austin. Hernandez campaigned on the issue and has said her jails will only honor immigration holds on murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking cases, a policy Abbott has called a threat to public safety.

Hernandez's position contrasts that of her predecessor, who had allowed federal officials to use the jail to locate and detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally for possible deportation. Abbott has ordered the state to withhold nearly $1.5 million from Travis County, which also supported projects such as family violence education and a special court for veterans.

Abbott, meanwhile, has gone further on the issue than Trump or his state Legislature's sanctuary cities bill, saying he'd like to remove from office locally elected officials who refuse to comply with federal immigration requests.

Fights elsewhere in Texas could already be brewing. Dallas County commissioners on Tuesday approved a nonbinding resolution calling immigrants in the country illegally "integral members to our community" while directing local police to "end nonessential collaborations" with federal immigration authorities.