Texas Senate passes ‘Sanctuary City’ bill with more teeth

FILE: The Texas Senate floor in February 2017. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)
FILE: The Texas Senate floor in February 2017. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After two days of debating, Texas senators voted down party lines on an updated version of SB 4 against “Sanctuary Cities” on Wednesday. The bill will now move to the Texas House Committee. Gov. Greg Abbott declared it an emergency item in his State of the State address and it is now halfway to his desk.

The bill cuts funding for law enforcement agencies not fully complying with federal immigration detainer requests. This became a national issue when Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez changed her ICE policy to only hand over murderers, human smugglers and people charged with aggravated sexual assault over to the federal government.

Depending on the situation, someone not complying with ICE requests could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. Late Tuesday evening, the Texas Senate approved a floor amendment that would have a possible punishment for those crimes.

The bill also strips grant money away from counties until the official in charge of the department in violation steps down. It says governments and law enforcement agencies “shall comply” when the feds ask them for someone here illegally and arrested. If passed, Sheriff Hernandez would be forced to hand over anyone ICE agents want.

If they don’t comply someone could file a complaint with the Texas attorney general, who would take the case to a three judge panel and force compliance.

Democrats argued overzealous immigration enforcement would lead to racial profiling. “They see the characteristics of someone that they think could be undocumented, and they hold them,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

Senate Democrats worried that would lead to rogue officers because under the bill, if someone is not held for ICE and that person goes on to commit a felony, the victims could sue that department for any dollar amount they want.

The author of the bill Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, says he trust officers to not racially profile. “I believe in my officers better than that,” said Sen. Perry.

Whitmire countered in a feisty exchange on the Senate floor,” This is not whether we believe officers or not. This is what people believe your legislation is doing.”

“Discretion doesn’t give an officer the ability to break the law,” responded Sen. Perry, explaining this is a bill against government and elected officials, not undocumented people living in Texas. “This is not for the law abiding, hardworking citizens that came here for opportunity.”

Thirty-eight floor amendments were filed, mostly by Democrats trying to make the bill more to their liking. They included amendments to exclude college campus police, more training for officers, and one prohibiting an arrest for the sole crime of living here while undocumented.

Republican and Democratic senators alike did agree since the Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers” law, local police and state DPS troopers cannot enforce federal immigration law.

SB 4 was approved along party lines with the first and second round of votes. It is now up for another vote at the Texas House. The lower chamber has yet to form committee and cannot take action on the bill for now. House staffers tell KXAN action could begin in the House next week after committees are formed.

Gov. Abbott quickly released a statement with his approval. “Today’s action in the Senate helps ensure that Sheriffs and officials across Texas comply with federal immigration laws and honor Immigration and Custom Enforcement detainer requests that keep dangerous criminals off of our streets.”

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