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Gimme Shelter

Gov. Rick Perry’s focus on sanctuary cities — cities that don't allow their police officers to enforce federal immigration laws — could offer him safe passage through the contentious immigration debate. But it will be tricky.

House Speaker Joe Straus, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

Three reasons Gov. Rick Perry declared sanctuary cities an “emergency item” for the Texas Legislature: a nativist electorate, a reluctance to mimic Arizona on immigration law, and the closing commercial in his campaign for re-election last year.

Here’s one more: The first 60 days of a legislative session offer the governor a moment of control over the agenda, and he’s decided to point the spotlight, for now, at immigration and property rights, the second issue he declared to be an emergency. He hasn’t done it yet, but passing voter ID is a good bet for the next act in the center ring.

The governor is, in effect, alone on the stage. Lawmakers can’t deliberate on bills for the first 60 days of the 140-day session unless he says so, by declaring emergencies. They don’t have to be emergencies, necessarily, but the process allows lawmakers to handle pressing business, while allowing the governor to drive the agenda during the session’s first weeks. For Perry, it’s a chance to deal with immigration matters before the budget, redistricting and other issues claim the limelight.

Perry’s focus on sanctuary cities — cities that don't allow their police officers to enforce federal immigration laws — could offer him safe passage through the contentious immigration debate. Arizona wants its police to question the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. Perry wouldn’t require police to ask, but would allow it.

It’s a fine distinction for a Republican Party trying to win favor with Hispanics while quelling a rebellion from nativist conservatives. Perry wants to answer the anger of the second group without stoking it in the first.

In the governor’s race, he and Bill White battled over whether Houston was a sanctuary city while White was mayor. Houston never had an official edict from its city council or mayor, but the police followed a general order against asking about the citizenship of people who hadn’t been arrested (they did run immigration checks after arrests).

Some, including many police chiefs, argue that asking for papers all the time gets in the way of regular police work and makes it harder for officers to win the trust of citizens whose help is needed to fight crime. Perry hit that note in a statement last April, rejecting the Arizona standard because “some aspects of the law turn law enforcement officers into immigration officials by requiring them to determine immigration status during any lawful contact with a suspected alien, taking them away from their existing law enforcement duties, which are critical to keeping citizens safe.” The Texas Department of Public Safety’s policy under Perry was remarkably similar to Houston’s and other big cities in the state.

The argument stopped there, for a while. Then Perry closed the campaign with a television ad featuring Sgt. Joslyn Johnson, a Houston cop whose husband, Rodney, also a police officer, was killed by an undocumented immigrant during a traffic stop. This being a political ad, it blamed White’s policies as mayor for that death.

While Perry doesn’t want to copy Arizona’s immigration law, he said during the campaign that he understands the sentiment that led to it, and that Texas should step in and protect its borders if the federal government won’t. So the policy and the politics don’t exactly match up. He’s got to do something — he campaigned on it — but doesn’t want to do what Arizona did.

If he doesn’t jump in, the Legislature surely will. By the end of last week, lawmakers had already filed 30 bills with the word “immigration” in them, including legislation that would require police officers to inquire into the immigration status of people they’ve arrested. That’s before you get to the goodies like anchor babies, state services for non-citizens, immigration records of public school students, and sanctuary cities; this, along with the budget and redistricting, is front and center this session.

Perry and his aides can’t or won’t name any sanctuary cities in the state, but the governor said he’s going to make it illegal to be one. He said last week that there are cities in the state that have “made decisions to be havens for those who are either in conflict with federal immigration laws, or state laws, and we’re going to prohibit that. We’ll have a good and open discussion about what we’re going to prohibit, and if the shoe is fitting you, then you might not want to be wearing it.”

It’s a potentially treacherous issue, and for now, that’s as specific as he’s going to get.

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Demographics Immigration State government 82nd Legislative Session Bill White Griffin Perry Rick Perry Sanctuary cities Texas Legislature