House passes bill targeting sanctuary city police with criminal charges if they do not help federal authorities with detention requests, including children at school
Donald Trumps plan to punish so-called sanctuary cities was blocked in court this week, but the concept is enjoying more success at state level, where Texas is poised to enact a law forcing local police to act as federal immigration enforcers.
A bill passed the Texas state house shortly before 3am on Thursday, after 16 often heated hours of debate amid pro-immigrant demonstrations outside the capitol building in Austin. Democrats in the Republican-dominated Texas legislature proposed a series of amendments in a futile effort to stall and weaken the bill, a version of which was already advanced by the senate.
It puts sheriffs and other police chiefs at risk of criminal charges and other serious sanctions if they do not help the federal government enforce immigration laws by complying with requests to detain immigrants. There are also civil fines for non-cooperation by local entities including campus police departments.
A Democratic state representative, Victoria Neave, began a four-day hunger strike on Sunday in protest at the bill. Another, Mary Gonzalez, wept on Wednesday as she talked in the state house about being a sexual assault survivor and expressed her fear that the law would help criminals. A third, Ana Hernandez, gave an emotional speech about her life before she became a US citizen.
During the time we lived in undocumented status, although I was just a little girl, I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day, the fear my parents experienced each day as their two little girls went to school, not knowing if there would be an immigration raid that day, she said. I see myself in many other students now that share the same fear of being deported or having their parents deported, wondering whats going to happen to them.
Republican hearts were not softened: they strengthened the language in the bill to allow law enforcement to ask the immigration status of anyone who is merely detained for example, during a traffic stop as well as arrested. They also refused to pass amendments calling for exemptions for young children at school or people in domestic violence shelters.
Rafael Anchia, a Democratic state representative, described it on Twitter as a papers please measure reminiscent of Arizonas hardline and highly controversial SB1070, passed in 2010.
The two Texas chambers will have to agree on a final version before the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, can sign it into law.
The renewed effort comes after Donald Trump issued an executive order in January proposing to cut federal funds to sanctuary cities. These are informally defined as places where local authorities limit cooperation with immigration agents, notably when police decline to honour detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) to hold people already in jail for longer so they can be picked up and potentially deported.
On Tuesday, though, a judge in California said that Trumps order was an unconstitutional overreach of his authority and issued a temporary ban to stop it being enacted. But, energised by Trumps rhetoric, conservative states are forging their own paths where the White House has so far been unable to tread.
Lena Graber, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, said that it is likely to be easier for states to enact anti-immigrant policies. The legal analysis is different when its a state law versus a federal law. And so the states probably have more power in this [respect] than the federal government, she said. The states have more power to tell localities what they can or cant do but it actually depends on state constitutions.
Florida lawmakers are mulling over a bill to end municipal sanctuary policies.
Virginias Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed a restrictive bill last month. But Phil Bryant, the Republican governor of Mississippi, signed a law prohibiting sanctuary cities and banning any local policies that prevent public officials from enquiring about an individuals immigration status.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, this year at least 32 states and the District of Columbia have considered or are considering legislation on the topic, with 29 states examining possible bans and 15 states and DC weighing pro-immigrant stances (12 states have bills on both sides of the argument).
Four states Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina passed bans before a national conversation began in 2015.. Kate Steinles murder in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant who had been released from jail a few weeks earlier became a rallying cry for conservatives, and Trump often cited the killing during his election campaign.
Proponents of mandatory cooperation argue that it creates uniform standards and makes communities safer by reducing the number of criminals who are released from jail and go on to commit other offenses. Opponents say that serious crimes are rare and that mandating local police to work with Ice in fact undermines safety by eroding trust between officers and communities, pushing undocumented immigrants deeper into the shadows and making offences less likely to be reported.
Five Texas sheriffs from major metropolitan areas wrote an editorial earlier this month in the San Antonio Express-News arguing that compelling local police to act as immigration agents would be an expensive and damaging use of resources based not on sound reasoning but on anti-immigrant grandstanding.
Critics also say that detaining individuals who otherwise would be released violates due process and that enlisting local officers for immigration enforcement encourages racial profiling.
All of these policies, they do different things but theyre all about the use and discretion of local resources and staff time and there is no legal obligation for local governments or agencies to help enforce immigration law of any kind and in fact the constitution prevents them from being required to do it. Theyre allowed to offer help, as many do, but the idea that sanctuary policies are somehow going to be struck down in the courts is absurd because theyre totally legal, Graber said.
The issue can also be seen in the wider context of the growing trend of Republican-led states seeking to create laws preempting ordinances passed by large liberal-leaning cities on culture wars topics such as guns, LGBTQ rights and the minimum wage, said Allie Yee, associate director of the Institute for Southern Studies.
But the vague term sanctuary city leaves room for a wide range of interpretations. Abbott, the Texas governor, withheld $1.5m in criminal justice funding for the Austin area after the sheriff of Travis County announced in January that her department would not honour most Ice detainers. He also threatened to have her removed from her job, though she is an elected official.
On Tuesday, though, Austin mayor Steve Adler told reporters after a discussion with the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, that the federal government does not consider the city and county to meet the definition of a sanctuary city.
This is creating a lot of uncertainty for local elected officials about what they can do or cant do, Yee said. Is any kind of policy thats seen as friendly towards immigrants going to be then [tagged] with a sanctuary city label and will that jeopardise millions of dollars from the state or federal government?
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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