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House Prepares for Sanctuary Cities Debate

Is it about security or racial profiling? Will U.S. citizens be targets of harassment? Will it stain Texas with the reputation Arizona thrust upon itself? The Texas House will likely entertain those and other sensitive questions when House Bill 12, commonly referred to as the “sanctuary cities” bill, hits the chamber's floor on Friday.

Undocumented immigrants are brought back into Mexico.

Is it about security or racial profiling? Will it financially drain local governments through unfunded mandates? Is it an innocuous tool that simply allows law enforcement to ask more questions? Will U.S. citizens be targets of harassment? Will it stain Texas with the reputation Arizona thrust upon itself?

The Texas House will likely entertain those and other sensitive questions when House Bill 12, commonly referred to as the “sanctuary cities” bill, hits the chamber's floor on Friday. Observers expect the item, one of five declared an "emergency" by Gov. Rick Perry, to test how far lawmakers are willing to go to address the issue of illegal immigration in Texas. Fifty-nine amendments, mostly authored by Democrats, have already been filed.

HB 12, which is being carried by state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would prohibit cities, counties and other governmental entities or special districts from adopting a policy that prevents law enforcement from asking 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.

The bill will likely be the first test for Hispanic Republicans in the House, who have pledged to ensure that the law does not violate a person’s civil rights.

“One amendment will make it very clear that racial profiling will not be tolerated in the implementation of the bill,” said state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg. Peña, the chairman of the Hispanic Republican Conference, who was a Democrat until he switched parties last fall, said his colleagues would introduce a host of amendments to make the bill “more palatable for members to support.” Peña said he would also try to amend the bill to exclude hospital districts so all people may “obtain medical treatment without fear.”

Democrats know they don’t have the votes to stop the bill, so they'll try instead to convince lawmakers of its burdensome fiscal impact on local governments. They hope the GOP mantra of “no unfunded mandates” will resonate enough to work in their favor. While the fiscal note for HB 12 indicates no significant impact to the state, local governments could fare far worse, according to the analysis. Because of penalties for failing to implement the legislation, local entities could see a reduction in the amount of state grant money they receive.

Additionally, the Texas Municipal League cites costs to larger cities that would be forced to expand jail space and personnel. The City of Houston Police Department, for example, could be forced to spend more than $4 million on 58 new personnel, including officers and guards and expanded jail space. Those costs are one reason that a majority of big-city police chiefs and county sheriffs oppose the bill.

“Frankly, if what we are trying to do is make sure the criminal element isn’t in our country, there are systems in place for that,” said state Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, referring to the federal government’s Secure Communities and Criminal Alien programs, which check the legal status of people arrested or charged with crimes and places an immigration hold on them until they are turned over to the federal government.

Law enforcement officials say the bill will erode trust between law enforcement and the immigrant community.

“This bill could actually negatively impact U.S. citizens. If a non-U.S. citizen witnesses a crime that affects the U.S. citizen, the witness may very well hesitate to call the police or report their observations,” said Arlington Police Chief Jennifer White.

The original bill allowed school district employees to inquire about the immigration status of students, leading 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. Gonzales said that provision could still lead to higher rates of truancy.

Solomons has been steadfast in his belief that the bill doesn’t require law enforcement to do anything — that it only gives them the option to ask about immigration, which falls in line with what Perry has said he wants since declaring the item an emergency.

Still, immigrants rights groups and other opponents of the bill say the measure will ultimately lead to racial profiling, to the bullying U.S. citizens who are minorities based on their appearance.

“It’s going to cost the state in ways we never imagined," Gonzales said. "There will be unintended consequences in this bill."

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