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After Emotional Debate, House Passes Sanctuary Cities Legislation

After hours of contentious and often emotional debate, the Texas House passed HB 12, the controversial "sanctuary cities" legislation. The measure was passed on a 100 to 47 vote just after midnight.

State Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, lays out HB12 on "sanctuary cities" in the House on May 6, 2011.

After hours of contentious and often emotional debate, the Texas House passed HB 12, the controversial "sanctuary cities" legislation, which 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. Entities not in compliance could risk losing state funds.

The measure was passed on a 100 to 47 vote just before midnight.

Opponents of the legislation, proposed by state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, fear it will lead to racial profiling and harassment of legal residents and citizens. Proponents of HB 12, which was declared an "emergency" item by Gov. Rick Perry, say it is a necessary tool to free up law enforcement to better identify those in the country illegally, including criminals.

The legislation is, to date, the most controversial immigration-related legislation before state lawmakers and has ignited a controversy over what opponents also say may be the unintended consequences of the legislation. Texas could fare worse than Arizona, they say, which has faced widespread condemnation after it enacted SB 1070. The state has since been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and has lost millions in tourism and convention-related revenue.

“When you cast this vote, I hope you realize that 9 million Hispanics will take it personally,” said state Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to the legal Hispanic population in Texas.

But supporters say it is not an Arizona-type law, which requires that police enforcers ask about immigration status. Instead, it is about discretion, they argue, and only grants police officers the right to inquire if they choose. They also point to the escalating violence in drug-war ravaged Mexico as a reason the bill needs to be implemented. Legal residents, citizens and non-criminals should have no reason to fear the law, Republicans say.

My skin is brown. I am Hispanic, and I am not afraid of House Bill 12," said state Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, a member of the inaugural class of the Hispanic Republic Conference.

Officers would have to witness a crime or have reason to believe someone was involved in a crime before they are allowed to inquire about the status. 

Solomons amended the bill to exclude hospitals and hospital districts unless their employees are commissioned police officers. The bill also excludes public school and junior college employees, unless they are commissioned police officers. Solomons has said that should ease concerns that the bill may violate state and federal laws that mandate a free public school education for every child in the state. But a bipartisan effort to exclude campus police officers altogether failed on an 80 to 65 vote. Lawmakers for the amendment said that because the campus cops are school district employees, the districts could face a lack of state funds — the sanctions outlined in the bill — if they are confused about the policy or refuse to inquire about status if they fear legal retribution for doing so.

“Members, think about your school districts,” said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who co-authored the amendment with state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

Menéndez, in a gesture more symbolic than anything else, issued an emotional plea for members to vote for an amendment that would strike the bill’s enabling clause. It evoked from some members childhood memories of racial profiling, which they say affected them or their parents. Other recited passages from the Bible. And others, including Houston Democrats Hubert Vo and Harold Dutton, enumerated the unintended consequences the bill could have on the state, specifically increased incidents of racism against all cultures. But Republicans dug in and fought back, staying with their message that all the bill does is allow for additional questioning.

“I know that this bill is an important bill, for and against, not only in this House but in the state of Texas. But I am going to oppose the bill because it’s the right thing to do,” Solomons said in opposition to the amendment.

After nearly three hours of debate on the bill Monday — the bulk of which witnessed an orderly Texas House whose members listened to arguments for and against the bill — tempers began to flare and patience began to dwindle. Solomons made a motion to call the previous question, a procedural move that would eliminate the consideration of about 30 additional amendments and cease all debate. Following impassioned speeches from Democrats about what the move meant for them — a halt to a discussion on one of the state’s most important pieces of proposed legislation — the motion was approved 99 to 47.

HB 12 now moves to third reading in the House.

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