Texas House OKs 'sanctuary city' ban with tough jail penalty

The bill could potentially jail police chiefs and sheriffs for not cooperating fully with federal immigration authorities

By Will Weissert 
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — The Republican-controlled Texas House approved a strict ban on "sanctuary cities" early Thursday, empowering local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law against anyone they detain and threatening police chiefs and sheriffs who refuse to do so with jail.

The vote came just before 3 a.m. and followed 15-plus hours of heated, sometimes tearful debate, much of it from outnumbered Democrats.

Students gather in the Rotunda at the Texas Capitol to oppose SB4, an anti-
Students gather in the Rotunda at the Texas Capitol to oppose SB4, an anti-"sanctuary cities" bill that already cleared the Texas Senate and seeks to jail sheriffs and other officials who refuse to help enforce federal immigration law, as the Texas House prepares to debate the bill, Wednesday, April 26, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The bill would allow Texas to withhold funding from county and local governments for acting as sanctuary cities — even as President Donald Trump's efforts to do that nationally have hit roadblocks. Other Republican-led states have pushed for similar polices, but Texas would be the first in which police chiefs and other officials could face a misdemeanor criminal charge of official misconduct and be removed from office for not helping enforce immigration law.

An entity that fails to follow the law could be subjected to a civil penalty of $1,500 for a first offense and $25,500 for any subsequent violation.

The proposal is needed to "keep the public safe and remove bad people from the street," said Republican Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, its House sponsor.

The term "sanctuary cities" has no legal definition, but Republicans want local police to help federal authorities as part of a larger effort to crack down on criminal suspects in the U.S. illegally.

The Texas House bill originally allowed local law enforcement officers to inquire about federal immigration status only if someone is arrested. A version passed in March by the state Senate went further, permitting immigration inquires of anyone who is detained, including during traffic stops.

But a floor amendment backed by the tea party movement extending the House version to apply to those detained as well as those arrested passed on an 81-64 vote — bringing the full bill closer to what the Senate previously approved.

Democrats, and even some veteran Republicans, opposed the change to no avail. It drew rebuke from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, who tweeted: "We're disappointed House voted to allow police to inquire into legal status during detention rather than arrest."

Trump is trying to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities, but a federal judge in California on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction preventing him from doing so. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declared the issue an "emergency" item, saying the state is poised to pass an anti-sanctuary cities law, regardless of what happens nationally.

Sally Hernandez, the sheriff of Travis County, which includes liberal Austin, enraged conservatives by refusing to honor federal requests to hold suspects for possible deportation if they weren't arrested for immigration offenses or serious crimes such as murder. But Hernandez softened her policy after Abbott cut grant funding to the county and she has said she'll conform to the state's ban if it becomes law.

Other sheriffs warn the bill could make their jobs harder if immigrants — including crime victims and witnesses — fear the police.

"Today we've made real that fear," said Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat. Many of his colleagues decried what they called a "show me your papers law."

Wednesday night, dozens of protesters, many waving signs and banners skewering the bill and its supporters, gathered inside the Texas Capitol to chant pro-immigrant slogans in English and Spanish. Some later filed into the House visitors' gallery to applaud bill opponents on the floor. "God is watching what you're doing," one woman yelled at Republican lawmakers before being escorted out.

Things had quieted hours later, when the bill was approved. Still, Democratic Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso, on Texas' border with Mexico, wept openly as she recalled being sexually assaulted, saying the bill will empower criminals. Rep. Victoria Neave, a Dallas Democrat, staged a four-day fast in opposition.

"I have seen the fear of children who worry their parents are going to be deported," Neave said.

The state Senate's version is different enough from what the House passed that the two chambers must compromise before sending a bill to the governor. Similar efforts have collapsed in the past, though, meaning the issue isn't yet fully settled.

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