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House Lawmakers Prepare for Intense "Sanctuary Cities" Debate

House lawmakers are gearing up for a battle as emotional and time-consuming as Voter ID when they take up legislation addressing another one of Gov. Perry’s emergency items — abolishing sanctuary cities, which could hit the House floor as soon as next week.

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It’s been modified from its original form to allay Democrats’ concerns, but lawmakers are nonetheless gearing up for a battle as emotional and time-consuming as Voter ID when they take up legislation addressing another one of Gov. Perry’s emergency items — abolishing sanctuary cities.

Several bills addressing illegal immigration have been filed in the Texas House but HB 12 by Carrolton Republican Burt Solomons has advanced the furthest, making it out of the State Affairs Committee. The Calendars Committee, which sets the House agenda, has received the bill's committee report and it should be eligible for floor action as soon as next week.

The bill would prohibit cities, counties and other governmental entities or special districts from adopting a policy that prevents law enforcement from inquiring about the immigration status of an individual. Under the bill, commissioned peace officers would be allowed to ask persons lawfully detained or arrested if they are in the country legally. Governmental entities would also be prohibited from enacting policies prohibiting law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officers or prohibiting federal immigration officers from conducting enforcement activities at municipal and county jails. Entities not in compliance could risk losing state funds.

Gov. Perry has said that mandating law enforcement to inquire about status, similar to what Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 requires, is not for Texas. He said he only wants law enforcement agencies here to be able to have discretion on this subject; some of his critics have accused him of wavering on the issue for political purposes. That said, Solomons said his bill is in line with what Perry wants.

“The biggest problem I have with the media is that [it perceives that] the sanctuary cities bill is somehow a mandate when all it is saying is that you shouldn’t [prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status],” he said. “The bill doesn’t mandate anything. It’s the same discretion that an officer uses at a traffic stop for anything in the investigation of a criminal offense. They use discretion all the time.”

Democrat Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, voted against passing the bill out of the State Affairs Committee earlier this month. He said he doesn’t buy the non-mandate argument.

“You know just because you put on a sheet of paper and put that the policy shouldn’t be, implicitly you are creating a mandate, you are telling them what to do, and therefore there’s a consequence associated with that,” he said. “To argue otherwise is disingenuous.”

Turner and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who sits on the Calendars Committee, said it was likely if not certain the bill would see a battle similar to Voter ID in the House. That controversial bill caused a floor debate that lasted about 12 hours and saw plenty of heated exchanges and more than 60 amendments.

“Yes, we are [preparing]. This is one of the bills we are unified in opposition to,” Rodriguez said.

The bill analysis has no state fiscal note, meaning that it shouldn’t cost the state any money to enforce. Local governments, however, could fare worse, according to the analysis. Because of the penalties for failing to implement the legislation, local entities could experience a revenue loss depending on what state grants they receive. According to the Texas Municipal League, “costs associated with implementing the provisions of the bill could be significant.” The league cites, for example, the City of Houston Police Department, which could be forced to spend more than $4 million on 58 new personnel, including officers and guards, and expanded jail space.

Houston was in the spotlight during the gubernatorial race as Perry accused his Democratic opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, of operating a sanctuary city, which White denied. Asked about the costs cited in the bill, Solomons deferred back to that argument.

“Houston says they are not a sanctuary city so I don’t know that anything changes,” he said.  “The police officers in Houston have a tremendous amount of discretion for a variety of things. They could arrest a lot more people if they wanted to so the idea that somehow just because we have a policy that says you shouldn’t have a policy that says an officer can’t use discretion — I don’t see how that changes a whole lot.”

Solomons said the new draft of the bill also allays concerns Democrats had about the affect of the legislation on school districts. The original bill included school district employees, which led Democrats to question how the policy would affect education. According to the state and federal constitutions, schools must educate students regardless of their status. The modified bill excludes school district, charter school and junior college employees, except for campus police.

Turner said the exemption still raises questions.

“What’s the difference? What are they supposed to do? Not inquire when the bill says to inquire? There are just too many ambiguities in this bill,” he said. “In my estimation I think it makes the situation very confusing. It creates unnecessary tension.”

Solomons said the only school district employees allowed to use their discretion are campus police if they are commissioned peace officers, and that the policy should not contradict mandates about education.

“It has to do with law enforcement. It doesn’t have anything to do with involvement, with it possibly conflicting with the law about educating kids,” he said. “If you have some event that involves a criminal offense [on campus] then police officers should have the discretion.”

The bill could also be a test for the Hispanic Republican Conference members in the Texas House. HRC Chairman Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, and state Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, both charter members of the conference, were part of the closing remarks during the Voter ID debate. Aliseda decried any allegations that the bill was racially motivated, pointing to more stringent laws in Mexico. Peña, a former democrat, said the bill would restore confidence in the system.

But asked Monday whether the conference was all in for HB 12, Peña said they had yet to make up their collective minds. It would be fair to say members are still debating, he said.

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