Texas Senate revives ‘sanctuary cities’ immigration debate

FILE - Texas State Capitol (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Texas State Capitol (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (AP) — The Texas Senate on Monday revived a divisive immigration enforcement bill that bans so-called “sanctuary cities,” rekindling an issue that rocked the Legislature in years past with emotional debates over racial profiling.

While similar measures have failed to pass in previous years, and this one still has a long way to go, newly-emboldened Texas Republicans have promised to get tough on illegal immigration.

The term “sanctuary city” has no legal meaning; it is typically used to describe local governments that ban police from asking about a person’s immigration status. A bill by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would prohibit local governments from prohibiting such bans.

The state House, meanwhile, tackled immigration too, but in a much less contentious way. The full chamber voted unanimously to pass a separate measure meant to curb human trafficking as part of a broader plan on border security, its first approved bill of the legislative session that began Jan. 13.

Such consensus was nowhere to be found, though, during a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security, which mulled Perry’s bill. The author said police shouldn’t be barred from using all tools at their disposal when enforcing the law.

“These criminals swarm into our major cities knowing full well nothing will be done to them,” Perry said. “The rule of law is important. … A society without law is anarchy.”

Civil rights activists warn immigration status inquiries are likely to lead to racial profiling of minorities. And some law enforcement groups warn it will likely cause some crime victims to not call police if they fear be asked about their immigration status.

“This will push people further into the shadows, which harms public safety,” said Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local law enforcement officials don’t want to engage in federal immigration law.

“What’s next? The county sheriff’s going to be knocking on your door asking if you’ve paid your income taxes?” Wiles said.

Perry said the bill ban’s racial profiling and Perry said he trusts law enforcement would use proper discretion. Police also would not be able to detain someone to question them solely about their immigration status, Perry said.

Business groups have opposed the bill, warning that it could have a negative impact on trade with Mexico.

The bill was expected to be left pending in the subcommittee with a vote expected at a later date.

In 2011, former Gov. Rick Perry made the issue a legislative priority and a bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but failed without a final vote in the House under pressure from business groups. The Senate vote in 2011 came after eight hours of debate in which Democrats railed against the bill as a racist and a tool to harass Hispanics.

In the House later Monday, members voted 143-0 to approve a proposal sponsored by Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a 47-year lower chamber veteran.

The bill makes it easier to prosecute the crime of forcing minors into prostitution by expanding the statute of limitations for committing such an offense. It also increases human trafficking related training for state judiciary officials and establishes a special state anti-sex trafficking unit.

Thompson’s bill was fast-tracked through the Legislature because Gov. Greg Abbott made border security an “emergency item.” It now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to enjoy bipartisan support — unlike Perry’s sanctuary cities measure.

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Eds: Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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