Sanctuary Cities Bill Back on Track in Texas Senate

State Sen. Tommy Williams on the Senate floor on May 16, 2011.
State Sen. Tommy Williams on the Senate floor on May 16, 2011.

Sanctuary cities legislation was revived today and will be sent to the Texas Senate for consideration.

In another surprise move by the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security committee, Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, made a motion to reconsider a vote the committee took Wednesday that replaced the original language of House Bill 12, the sanctuary cities legislation. It would prohibit local governmental entities from adopting policies that prevent local law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status of people lawfully detained or arrested. The issue was designated an emergency item by Gov. Rick Perry and the bill passed the House earlier this month on a party line vote.

But the substitute Williams accepted Wednesday gutted the sanctuary cities language from HB 12, and replaced it with language from one of his own bills, SB 9, an omnibus homeland security bill that had passed the Senate but was stuck in a House committee. Friday, the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security took up SB 9, however, and voted it out.

The motion to reconsider the vote in the Senate committee passed on a party line vote, 5 to 3. Williams then made a motion to consider HB 12 as it was passed out of the full House earlier this month, with the sanctuary cities language in tact. The motion passed on the same party line vote.

Williams has said since January that he also supported sanctuary cities legislation but he thought it and homeland security should be dealt with separately. He reiterated that immediately after the vote today and said his latest maneuver was a way to make that happen.

“What I have said all along is I see both issues as separate but it’s very important that both bills pass,” he said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, raised concerns in the hearing that the surprise move did not allow stakeholders enough time to regroup and provide testimony on sanctuary cities.

“I feel that some people may feel like they didn’t get an opportunity [to testify].” Watson said.

Wednesday after the switch was made several people scheduled to testify against HB 12 left the Capitol, thinking the issue was dead for the session. Several did stay to protest against SB 9, and today Williams said he thought the public was given sufficient notice.

The question now is whether the 12 Senate Democrats will unite and try to block the bill from getting to the full Senate for a debate. They can do that if the Senate follows tradition and abides by the rule in which two-thirds of the body needs to agree to get a bill to the floor.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he was disappointed but not surprised. He said it was possible the GOP majority could bypass the two-thirds rule, but didn’t think it would.

“I don’t see it happening. They did on the budget and voter ID but they did that by rule before the session started. At this point in the session as you all know, it gets kind of hectic and there is a lot of maneuvering and it’s like a chess game. But I am pretty sure we have the votes to block it,” he said.

When SB 9 was voted out of the House committee today, it had several pieces of separate legislation attached — so much so that Chairman Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, agreed it was a Christmas tree. Williams said there was still time to address those concerns.

“I think I made it clear and I stand by the commitment I made to my colleagues about Senate Bill 9 and I will continue to honor that,” he said. “The House has to take care of their business and we’ll go to conference.”

SB 9 would require all law enforcement agencies to adopt Secure Communities, a program administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in which local law enforcement compares the fingerprints of those arrested to a DHS database to determine if the individual can be deported. The bill also would institute stronger penalties for a laundry list of felonies. It would codify proof-of-citizenship requirements for driver's licenses and state-issued IDs. It would establish an automatic license-plate reader pilot program for vehicles used by DPS officers, and it allows DPS to commission special unit of Texas Rangers to, among other things, conduct background checks, monitor sex offenders and assist during disasters.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.