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Sanctuary Cities Bill: Comply or Lose State Money

Photo by KUT

Like parents threatening to withhold allowance from a misbehaving child, proponents of the Republican-backed sanctuary cities bill are warning local authorities across the state: Comply with the bill or face the fiscal consequences.

The legislation, by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, prevents cities, counties and other governmental entities from adopting policies that prevent law enforcement officers or other employees from inquiring into the immigration status of a person arrested or lawfully detained. Authorities can subsequently report individuals to federal immigration officials if they are thought to be in the country illegally.

If Senate Bill 9 passes both chambers of the Texas Legislature — which could happen as early as this week — communities that prohibit such immigration screenings would lose state grant money. But how much is uncertain.

“There are few, if any, states that provide less funding to cities than Texas,” said John Bender, a spokesman for the Texas Municipal League, which lobbies for local governments.

The state’s conservative spending principles — and this session’s budget cuts — could take the sting out of the monetary sanctions. The huge budget shortfall that led to billions of dollars in cuts to public education and health care also meant less for cities for several grant programs, according to Municipal League data. The organization’s numbers indicate that cities across the state will receive about $153.7 million less in the next biennium than the roughly $439.6 million they are currently appropriated. The money is already distributed among several hundred entities, Bender said. And that dilutes the possible sanctions even further.

The bill is mired in controversy. Republicans say Texans need to know who is living within the state, especially when a bloody cartel-fueled drug war rages just south of the state’s border and the federal government refuses to secure it. Others, mainly Democrats and minorities, claim the legislation is nothing more than chest-thumping conservative xenophobia.

Under the proposed legislation, local law enforcement would be required to assist federal immigration officers in certain investigations and allow them access to municipal and county jails for enforcement activities. A provision of the bill would allow any citizen to file a complaint against a government entity if it is believed to have violated the sanctuary cities law.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department, one of the state’s largest, has an annual budget of $382 million, but just 1.5 percent of it comes from state grants. Still, said Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the department, that does not mean authorities there will not enforce the provisions of the bill, should it pass.

“We don’t have a policy telling sheriff’s deputies what to do in that situation, so we won’t have to forfeit any state money,” Bernstein said. “And we don’t intend to.”

Julian Aguilar covered the 81st legislative session for the Rio Grande Guardian. Previously, he reported from the border for the Laredo Morning Times. A native of El Paso, he has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas and a master's degree in journalism from the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.
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