With tensions flaring, Texas House debates "sanctuary" legislation

Updated: Apr. 26, 2017 at 3:06 PM CDT
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House Democrats have done everything from warn Republicans against heckling them to shedding tears during floor speeches in what has already been a contentious debate on Senate bill 4, which would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions throughout Texas.

As of 2 p.m., the Texas House had only considered five amendments — all submitted by Democrats — which were all voted down along party lines. But before debate on actual policy started, Democrats tried their best to tug at Republican heartstrings in hopes of diluting what they labeled an “intentionally” racist proposal.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, recounted through tears how she was undocumented for years after her visa expired when she was growing up.

She said the bill exemplifies the fear her parents experienced "each day their little girls went to school. Worrying about an immigration raid.” Hernandez gave a similar speech in 2011, the last time the Texas House took up a “sanctuary” measure.

She was followed by state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, who’s been fasting in protest of the bill since she last attended church on Sunday. She said she’s received hate mail telling her to “die” and “starve.”

Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would expand the immigration-enforcement abilities of local police officers and punish local entities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials. Addressing “sanctuary” jurisdictions was declared an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott in the early days of the 85th legislative session.

SB 4, which passed the Senate in February, would also make sheriffs, constables and police chiefs subject to a Class A misdemeanor for failing to cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates subject to removal.

House members had expected a rough debate. Before the bill reached the House floor, one member predicted “trench warfare,” while another said that “battle lines have been drawn.” A third House member simply predicted “a total shitshow.”

Houston-area Reps. Gene Wu and Harold Dutton, both Democrats, added their own opinions Wednesday. A choked-up Wu said the bill was personal to him as an immigrant, and he recounted the fear the proposal has stirred in his district. Dutton calmly recited the history of what he deemed racist pieces of legislation and their effects on women, Chinese immigrants, former slaves and other minority groups.

Through it all, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the bill's House sponsor, stood his ground and said the bill wasn’t about targeting minorities or about racial profiling. Geren said it's about focusing efforts on deporting undocumented criminals.

“Most of the [immigrant community] is not a lawless community,” he said. “And that’s why we are going [only] after the ones that are criminals.”

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, had Geren’s back. He said his immigrant relatives were called “spics” and “wetbacks.” But he said the bill was common-sense policy that was about the rule of law.

Unless Democrats successfully derail the bill through a procedural maneuver known as a point of order — there had been three unsuccessful attempts as of 3 p.m. — it's likely that most of their amendments will be rejected by the Republican majority and SB 4 will be passed out of the chamber.

Either way, Democrats said they intend to keep fighting. During his floor speech, the usually mild-mannered Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, warned Republicans: “Do not mess with us today.”

Democrats are expected to propose more than 100 amendments to SB 4 on Wednesday. On Tuesday, some said they have 20 amendments ready to go, while others said they’re going to wait and see how the debate unfolds. But most are likely intended to make a statement.

For example, state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said he plans to file an amendment similar to a Senate measure that allows county clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriages to recuse themselves from signing marriage licenses. Blanco’s amendment would allow police officers to choose to not inquire about someone’s immigration status if it goes against their Catholic beliefs, he said.

The House version of the bill is considered less punitive than the Senate version because it only allows officers to ask about immigration status if a person is arrested.

The House version also keeps a provision that forces college campus administrators to comply with the bill, which Democrats have argued could get college students deported for relatively minor offenses such as being a minor in possession of alcohol.

Proponents of the legislation say that it is about the rule of law and ensuring law enforcement agencies follow the same policies.

“This bill ensures that there is predictability that our laws are applied without prejudice” no matter who is in custody, Perry said when the Senate voted on SB 4 in February.

Opponents of the measure say it would make communities less safe as many undocumented immigrants would be reluctant to reach out to police for fear of being deported. They also fear it would open the door to racial profiling and argue it’s not needed because local jails already cooperate with immigration officers.

“We know the Republicans have the numbers in the building,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “You’re going to see Democrats fighting very hard through a variety of tactics, including amendments detailing the deficiencies of the bill, the pointlessness of the bill.”

Tensions in the House began percolating this week when Democrats successfully blocked a procedural maneuver known as a calendar rule. The rule would have set a 1 p.m. Tuesday deadline for proposed amendments to SB 4. Democrats said that would have given Republicans too much time to study the amendments and find ways to cut off debate.

Wednesday’s debate comes just a day after Austin Mayor Steve Adler revealed that, according to what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told him at a meeting about what the federal government considers a "sanctuary" jurisdiction, neither Austin nor Travis County is considered one.

It also comes after a federal judge on Tuesday ruled that President Donald Trump exceeded his authority when he signed an executive order withholding federal money from "sanctuary" cities in the country. The judge ruled that only funds related to immigration enforcement can be withheld, according to the Associated Press.

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • The latest version of the Texas Legislature’s bill to outlaw "sanctuary cities" in Texas is a scaled-down version of what the state Senate passed out in February. 
  • Former immigration and border officials say the Trump administration is floating ideas related to immigration that range from nullifying treaties to expanding employment screenings.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/04/26/tensions-flaring-house-members-will-debate-anti-sanctuary-city-bill/.

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