Sanctuary citiesSix years after first attempt, fight over anti-sanctuary cities bill has changed

By Julián Aguilar

Published 16 January 2017

Bills targeting “sanctuary cities” failed to pass the Texas Legislature in 2011 and 2015, but similar efforts this session have better chances of making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The Legislature is gearing up for a fight over “sanctuary cities” bills — and not for the first time. The current debate was foreshadowed by one in 2011, but this time, chances are better that a bill could make it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Texas’ proposed 2011 ban on sanctuary cities, the common term for local entities that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, would have authorized local police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they arrested or detained. It led to fears that immigrants wouldn’t report crimes and that officers could detain people based solely on skin color and turn them over to federal immigration officers.

“Texas Can Do Better” and “No Arizona Hate” were common mantras from critics of the legislation that reverberated around the State Capitol in 2011 — references to a controversial Arizona bill that expanded the immigration enforcement powers of local law enforcement and passed that state’s legislature in 2010.

The plan, marked as an emergency item by then-Gov. Rick Perry, failed to pass the Texas Legislature in 2011, and similar legislation died in the Texas Senate in 2015. As expected, Republicans are taking another crack at passing a bill this year, and Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have labeled the issue a “legislative priority.”

Bills filed in both chambers — Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), and House Bill 889 by state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) — would allow local police to enforce immigration laws, but only if the officer is working with a federal immigration officer or under an agreement between the local and federal agency. It would also punish governments if their law enforcement agencies — specifically county jails — fail to honor requests, known as detainers, from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers for sheriffs to hand over immigrants in their custodies for possible deportation. The punishment would be a denial of state grant funds.

This time around, one border Democrat has conceded that he could support the detainer component of the current proposals, especially if it means it will keep more extreme measures at bay.

Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso), said data from ICE and testimony from county sheriffs earlier this year shows that county jail compliance isn’t the issue Republicans make it out to be.