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'Sanctuary Cities' Bill Gets Initial Approval In Texas House

The Texas House of Representatives has given tentative approval of a bill to ban so-called sanctuary cities. The chamber passed Senate Bill 4 early Thursday morning on a 93-54 vote after about 16 hours of debate. The bill would penalize jurisdictions that limit local law enforcement's cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests

During the 16-hour debate, lawmakers passed an amendment to the bill that would allow local law enforcement officials to enquire about an individual's immigration status upon detainment, rather than strictly after an individual has been arrested. The bill would also allow for the removal of police chiefs or sheriffs for not honoring detainer requests. 

Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT
Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren sponsored the bill to penalize so-called sanctuary cities.

"The bill carries stiff civil penalties for local entities who enact sanctuary city policies and allows the removal from office sheriffs, police chiefs who refuse to comply with immigration detainer requests," the bill's sponsor, Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, explained early on in the House debate.

Republican Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas recounted in explicit details the racism he encountered as a Latino, but said he still supports the measure. 

"This is a common-sense bill," he said. "It just says this, ‘If you are here and you are undocumented and you have violated some law and been detained or been arrested, we’re going to send you back to your community.'”

However, both Geren and Villalba voted against the controversial amendment from Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), which skews closer to the bill's original Senate language. That amendment, which drew impassioned testimony from Democratic lawmakers over the course of five hours, allows law enforcement to request the immigration status of any individual during detainment, rather than after a suspect is arrested.  

"It just ensures that once a person is now being detained, or they have been arrested lawfully ... and they learn that this person, for instance, has a federal detainer, that they can honor that," Schaefer said of his amendment.  

San Antonio Rep. Diego Bernal questioned Schaefer about how his amendment could make simple interactions with law enforcement lead to an immigration check, asking if someone could be detained for speeding. Schaefer said that was a possibility under his amendment.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez of Clint spoke about being a victim of sexual assault and how she felt this amendment would silence future victims.

"We aren't trying to exaggerate when we say the people in the shadows will be in the shadows more," Gonzalez said. 

Geren, Villalba and seven other Republican representatives voted against Schaefer's amendment in the 81-64 vote.

Earlier in the day, Democrats argued the bill is not needed because there is no municipality in Texas that is considered a sanctuary city.

Brownsville Rep. Rene Oliveira specifically asked that of Geren.

"Can you name one sanctuary city in Texas?" he asked on the House floor.

"At this time I cannot," Geren said.  

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Demonstrators gather at the Capitol to protest Senate Bill 4.

Demonstrators also gathered outside the Capitol before debate began for a "Day of Action" to urge representatives to reject the bill. Signs called the legislation "racist."

Opponents say local law enforcement should not be acting as federal immigration agents and warn that if they do, it will result in undocumented immigrants being less likely to cooperate with police, serve as witnesses or report crimes. 

The debate comes on the heels of a federal judge's ruling that blocked President Trump's executive order that aimed to withhold federal money from cities and counties deemed sanctuary jurisdictions by the federal government. 

At the state level, much of lawmakers' discussions have centered around Travis County Sheriff Sally Gonzalez's policy, which does not honor ICE requests unless someone has been charged with murder, human trafficking or aggravated sexual assault. 

Gov. Greg Abbott listed legislation banning sanctuary cities as one of his emergency itemsthis legislative session. The bill sailed through the Senatein February.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler met yesterday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and officials from the Department of Justice. After the meeting Adler told KUT's Nathan Bernier that Austin and Travis County did not seem to meet the definition of a "sanctuary" jurisdiction in the eyes of the federal government.

Adler said it appeared the state legislation went even further than President Trump's executive order.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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