AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A tough Texas anti-"sanctuary cities" bill that threatens to throw county sheriffs and small-town constables in jail if they refuse to help enforce federal immigration law looks to be on the fast-track toward passage in the state's Republican-controlled Legislature.
The proposal cleared a House committee 7-5 without debate Wednesday, setting up a floor vote soon. Opponents had hoped the House would soften a strict bill approved in February by Texas' Senate, but those tweaks made in committee shouldn't mitigate much.
Untouched was a hotly debated provision allowing for criminal charges against city or county officials who intentionally refuse to comply with federal authorities' attempt to deport people in the country illegally who already have been jailed on crimes unrelated to immigration. Elected officials could face up to a year in jail and lose their posts if convicted of official misconduct.
"By implementing this, we'll be able to remove these individuals from office," said Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who led the House effort to makeover what the state Senate approved previously. He said doing so "puts teeth in" the bill.
There also would be fines on local agencies, starting at $1,000 for a first offense and reaching $25,000 for recurring violations.
The Senate rushed to pass the bill despite the pleas of hundreds of opponents who waited hours to decry it as promoting discrimination and ultimately hurting law and order since it will make immigrants fearful of contacting police to report crimes. The House moved more slowly, but now appears poised to approve the proposal, too. Differences between each chamber's version will be reconciled in conference committee.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a sanctuary cities crackdown a top priority, and President Donald Trump has made stricter federal immigration policy — and vows to wall off the entire, nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border — a centerpiece of his administration.
There are some differences between the Senate and House bills.
The Texas House proposal only allows police officers to inquire about immigration status if someone is arrested, rather than simply being detained, like what the Senate approved. Local governments are also no longer threatened with losing their entire state grant funding for non-compliance.
"I believe the changes are mostly cosmetic," said Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from Dallas. "They don't really solve the problem with the bill. The immigrant community will still be afraid."
The term "sanctuary cities" has no legal definition, but Republicans want local police to help enforce federal immigration law as part of a larger effort to get tough on criminal suspects who are in the United States illegally.
Trump has promised to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities and the fight has raged on the state level in Travis County, which includes Austin, where Sherriff Sally Hernandez has refused to hold jailed inmates for possible deportation except in cases of certain violent crimes, like murder.
Abbott has already ordered the state to withhold $1.5 million from Travis County, money that also supported projects such as family violence education and a special court for veterans. If the House version passes, withholding state funds would get tougher — but Abbott could likely still withhold money controlled by his office from Hernandez and other officials following her lead.
A spokeswoman for Hernandez declined comment Wednesday, but the sheriff has said that if Texas approves the sanctuary city law, she will begin holding all jailed suspects for possible deportation.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the bill will block law enforcement's ability to "follow their professional experience to set priorities locally in order to determine how best to create trust relationships."
"Ultimately, it will make communities less safe," Adler said.