With tensions flaring, Texas House to debate 'sanctuary' legislation

By Julián Aguilar

On the eve of a Texas House debate on legislation that would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in the state, lawmakers weren’t sugar-coating their expectations of how the debate would go.

One member expected “trench warfare,” while another said that “battle lines have been drawn.” A third House member simply predicted “a total shitshow.”

At the center of the debate is Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which 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.

(Check back here to watch a livestream of the House debate.)

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.

On Wednesday, the House will take up its version of SB 4, carried by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. The House version 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.”

On Sunday, state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, announced she was fasting in protest 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 will come just one 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.

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.

Meanwhile many Republicans weren’t giving a lot of details as to how they see the debate unfolding. And with the numbers to pass the legislation on their side, they don’t have a lot to worry about.

Asked if he was going to leave all of the amendments to the will of the House or would urge members to vote for or against certain ones, Geren said he wasn’t sure.

“We’re just going to see how things go in the morning,” he said.

Republican Caucus Chairman Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, said he couldn’t predict what would happen.

“I really don’t know what we’re in store for,” he said. “But it’s going to be a long day.”

There’s one thing both sides can agree on, however: It’s going to be one of the most stressful, contentious days of the session.

“This has been cooking up,” state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said Tuesday during the recording of a Texas Tribune podcast. “Most people expected this to come up in maybe the first 30 days [because] it was an emergency item. So I think there’s a lot of extra anticipation.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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