Bill Targeting Sanctuary Cities Fast-Tracked in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – After hearing 16 hours of testimony Thursday, the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee voted to advance a controversial bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” and punish local governments and college campuses that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws.

More than 500 people testified during an often emotional and raucous hearing in the senate chamber that ended after midnight Friday.

The majority of those that testified – including police chiefs, attorneys and clergymen – spoke against the bill, arguing that it would force terrified undocumented immigrants into the shadows, reduce the effectiveness of local law enforcement entities, and invite a slew of discrimination lawsuits.

Opponents of an anti-sanctuary city bill gathered at the Texas Capitol Thursday. (KELSEY JUKAM/Courthouse News Service).

The measure, Senate Bill 4, would end sanctuary city policies, which prohibit local law enforcement from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with the federal government. The bill would also require local police to comply with detainer requests from federal immigration officers to hand over immigrants for possible deportation.

City governments and universities, which adopt, enforce, or endorse sanctuary city policies, would be punished under the law by being denied state grant funds.

Named after the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s when American churches sheltered refugees fleeing war in Central America, the call for sanctuary cities has grown louder since the election of President Donald Trump, who promised he would build a border wall and deport millions of people.

“SB 4 is about the rule of law and keeping our communities safe,” the bill’s author, Sen. Charles Perry, R – Lubbock, said at the hearing.

But many who testified, including several undocumented immigrants and family members of undocumented individuals, considered the bill a personal affront.

Vanessa Rodriguez, a University of Texas student who quit her job as a senate messenger earlier this week so she could testify at the hearing, tearfully recalled her father’s deportation.

“Vote against SB 4,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not humane … you could submit another bill that would restrict the real criminals and not target people like me.”

The committee, comprised of seven Republicans and two Democrats, listened to every person who signed up to testify, many speaking through tears like Rodriguez, some shouting and cursing, and never closed the hearing to the public despite a number of disruptive outbursts.

But there was never any question, whatever the arguments and outcries against it, that SB 4 would advance.

During his State of the State address Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared that eliminating sanctuary cities was an “emergency” priority for state legislators this session, empowering the senate to fast-track the bill.

“Elected officials don’t get to pick and choose which laws they obey,” Abbott said during the address. “To protect Texans from deadly danger, we must insist that laws be followed.”

On Wednesday, Abbott pulled more than $1.5 million in criminal justice grant funding to Travis County in Austin, where Sheriff Sally Hernandez has pledged to restrict deputies’ compliance with federal detention requests and end U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents’ access to the county jail.

“As local law enforcement officers, we will not interrogate or arrest someone over an unrelated federal immigration matter if they are trying to report a crime,” Hernandez said in a video released on YouTube two weeks ago. “The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement. Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE.”

During the hearing Thursday, police chiefs from across the state expressed concerns that the bill would erode relations between the police and the community.

While Sen. Perry said that there would be no repercussions for undocumented individuals reporting crimes, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told senators that, if the bill passes, undocumented individuals would nevertheless be hesitant to come forward as witnesses, which would interfere with his department’s focus on reducing crime. He also said that his department simply does not have the capacity to enforce federal immigration laws.

In written testimony sent to the committee, Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County in Houston, echoed McManus’ concerns.

He said that the bill would “create a climate of fear and suspicion.”

“In a time of scarce resources, we need policies that encourage our law enforcement agencies to work together, and with the communities we serve,” Gonzalez wrote.

The committee voted 7-2, along party lines, to advance the bill, which will be heard in the full Senate on Monday.

Not all states are taking the same approach as Texas. California lawmakers promised to protect and encourage sanctuary cities in their state in December, on the first day of the legislative session.