As President Barack Obama prepared to speak Tuesday in Texas about America's "broken immigration system," lawmakers in Austin moved forward with a measure that would force local police to give federal immigration offenses the same priority as other crimes.
The proposed law, which now goes to the state Senate, does not go as far as Arizona's requirement that police check people's immigration status. But it bans cities or police departments from telling officers not to actively enforce immigration laws.
The approach reflects the careful path Republicans in Texas must take between meeting conservative demands for tougher immigration measures and alienating a growing Hispanic population. Democrats Monday night reminded Republicans that Hispanics were watching such bills closely.
"When you cast this vote, I hope you realize, it will be a vote that 9 million Hispanics will take personally," state Rep. Jose Menendez said during debate.
The House approved the measure 100-47 after Republicans moved to cut off all debate on the issue, using a parliamentary maneuver that allows the majority to ram through bills. Gov. Rick Perry declared the measure to be emergency legislation. He said local law enforcement agencies were not doing enough to catch and deport illegal immigrants.
Perry praised the House for passing the bill saying "will strengthen the discretion our law enforcement officers need to effectively protect Texans."
The vote came on the eve of Obama's first trip as president to the U.S.-Mexico border. He planned to use the setting to sharpen his call for a remake of the nation's immigration laws and try to cast the GOP as the obstacle standing in the way. The president's speech in El Paso and his visit to a border crossing are the latest of Obama's high-profile immigration events, which have included hosting recent meetings at the White House with Latino lawmakers, movie stars and others.
In heavily Republican Texas, federal immigration law has been a key part of the debate over whether local police should start checking the immigration status of people they encounter while investigating crimes. Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, called federal immigration policy a complete failure and said it justified states taking a more active role in fighting illegal immigration.
Berman and other Republican lawmakers rejected arguments that the bill would result in racial profiling.
State Rep. Burt Solomons, author of the bill, said it would only prohibit communities and law enforcement entities from adopting policies that keep police and criminal investigators from providing immigration enforcement assistance. He helped tack on softening amendments that would provide a limited exemption for police officers who work for hospitals or school districts.
"The bill is a prohibition against policies, not a requirement to do anything," Solomons said.
Many sheriffs and city police chiefs have criticized the bill, saying they already are helping officials prosecute and deport illegal immigrants but don't want more mandates from the state. Other critics said the bill could allow local police agencies to become de-facto immigration enforcement agents and let rank-and-file officers spend all the time they want enforcing immigration laws no matter what managers want.
Police chiefs testifying on the legislation said it would take resources away from fighting violent crime and sow distrust in minority communities.
Democrats said racial profiling was inevitable.
"The bill doesn't say they have to do it, but the bill provides the cover, the license, (for racial profiling)," Menendez said.
An estimated 1.6 million illegal immigrants are in Texas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. Nationwide, their numbers declined between 2007 and 2009, from 12 million to 11.1 million, the first significant drop after two decades of growth. But their combined population in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana went up by a statistically significant 240,000, the center reported last month.
Immigration curbs have caught fire nationwide. In 2010, a record number of laws and resolutions were passed by state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which calculated that 46 states and the District of Columbia had passed 346 measures, with an additional 10 having fallen from gubernatorial vetoes.