Senate Approves Major Homeland Security Bill

You wouldn't know it by the miniscule amount of debate Thursday, but the Senate approved what some lawmakers called the most significant piece of homeland security legislation filed this session, a measure civil liberty groups worry is a major encroachment on civil rights.

Texas Department of Public Safety patch worn on a uniform during an April 7, 2011 graduation ceremony in Austin.
Texas Department of Public Safety patch worn on a uniform during an April 7, 2011 graduation ceremony in Austin.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera

You wouldn't know it by the miniscule amount of debate Thursday, but the Senate approved what some lawmakers called the most significant piece of homeland security legislation filed this session, a measure civil liberty groups worry is a major encroachment on civil rights.

SB 9, by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, a 13-page omnibus bill passed on a 27-5 vote. A small bipartisan mix of lawmakers opposed the measure: Sens. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso; Mario Gallegos, D-Houston; Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

The bill 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.

While they agreed the federal government has failed to secure the borders, Gallegos and Rodríguez said they were concerned that the bill could become an prime target for legislators in the House who have filed more draconian anti-immigration bills. The measure's broad caption — “relating to homeland security, providing penalties" — could make just about any immigration-related measure eligible for attachment.

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“It’s an open invitation to [conservative] lawmakers for hate mongering,” said Gallegos.

Gallegos said he was particularly concerned about so-called "sanctuary cities" legislation, which would ban local governments from adopting policies that prevent police from inquiring about immigration status. Though the issue been designated as an emergency item by Gov. Rick Perry, legislation that would abolish “sanctuary cities” in Texas has stalled. Williams’ bill, Gallegos said, could become a vehicle for the legislation.

Williams said he wouldn’t accept any such amendments from the House.

“I see it as a separate issue,” Williams said.

Rodriguez’s main objection was the mandated participation in Secure Communities. He said the program doesn’t target “serious offenders” as federal officials initially purported it would. Instead nonviolent undocumented immigrants and some who have committed no crime at all — and even some legal residents and U.S. citizens — have gotten caught up in the program.

“This is a broken system," he said. He also raised issues with the codification of driver’s license rules that DPS has been requiring applicants for licenses and IDs to submit proof of citizenship or legal status. For some non-citizens, the ID expires when their legal status does or, if that is not evident on an immigrant’s documents, a year after the license is issued. The requirements, he said, have resulted in some lawful U.S. residents being denied licenses and ID cards.

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“There's a reason a lot of the civil liberty activists have raised concerns," Rodriguez said.

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