Less than a week after Gov. Rick Perry added the measure to the special session agenda, the contentious "sanctuary cities" bill is one step closer to what lawmakers see as its inevitable passage.
After more than seven hours of testimony, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security voted 5-4 this evening, along party lines, to advance Senate Bill 9, by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, which seeks to prevent cities, counties and other special districts from banning law enforcement from inquiring into the status of individuals lawfully detained or arrested. The bill would also expand the federal government’s Secure Communities program to include all detention facilities (it’s currently in use in every county jail) and codify stricter guidelines for legal residents applying for state issued driver’s licenses or IDs.
As in previous hearings, opponents came from across the state to protest the bill, which sailed through the House during the regular session but died in the Senate after Democrats refused to suspend the regular order of business to bring the legislation up for debate. During a special session, though, the procedural rule doesn't apply, and Democrats now say the item, which Perry placed on his list of “emergency” legislation during the regular session, will pass through the upper chamber. The bill's passage in the House, given Republicans' 101-49 majority there, is almost assured.
The passion, tears and outrage displayed during earlier debate over the bill was on full display again. Houston Sgt. Joslyn Johnson, whose husband, Rodney Johnson, also a Houston officer, was killed by a twice-deported illegal alien, told senators they should pass the measure to ensure the safety of Texans.
“It’s just disparaging to know we have so much opposition to this bill," she told the committee. "We are all Texas peace officers, and we are sworn to uphold the laws all laws local, state and federal, and this is a tool our officers can use to keep our cities safe."
Others were just as staunch in their opposition, claiming the bill would lead to racial profiling and hamper immigrant communities' willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. One witness told committee members, through sobs and the use of an interpreter, of her prolonged physical and verbal abuse. She said she would not have been able to call police and ensure her abuser was placed in jail had the proposed law been in place then.
Law enforcement chiefs and sheriffs from all corners of the state also lined up to voice their opposition to what they called an unfunded mandate that would drain their jail space and resources.
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez said the measure would add up to an extra $1.5 million in housing costs annually if each of the 26 municipalities that uses the county jail hauled in just one additional detainee.
“A law that says you may or may not is uncomfortable to me,” she said. “I honestly believe our jails should have room for people we are afraid of, not people we are upset at.”
Four amendments were discussed and pulled down after Williams asked senators to instead introduce them on the Senate floor when the bill is debated there, something lawmakers said could happen as soon as Tuesday afternoon. It’s likely that language in the bill specifying that a person “lawfully detained” would subject to immigration questioning will receive more scrutiny.
During the hearing, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, asked for clarification on what that meant to the average law enforcement officer. She said the bill, in its current form, issues a broad license to officers seeking to expand their authority to detain individuals without actually arresting them. During his testimony as a resource witness, Shannon Edmonds, the director of governmental affairs the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said defining the difference between what law enforcement considers probable cause and reasonable suspicion depends on thousands of scenarios.
“I would encourage [the Legislature] not to do so,” he said, referring to defining the difference in the bill language. “I would encourage the courts to do that.”
Davis said her concerns grew after hearing the testimony. She asked lawmakers to consider sheriff’s deputies or Department of Public Safety or police officers who think they have legally detained someone and, because the proposed law would allow it, check the status of the individual.
“Later on, it’s determined that I didn’t really lawfully detain someone — by then it’s too late,” because the person is already deported, she said. “If what we are trying to do is create a catch-all provision allowing immigration to be checked, this is the language we should keep.”
Williams said frustration with the ambiguity should be directed at Washington, D.C.
“The whole reason the whole issue has become necessary is the failure of the federal government … to come up with a reasonable policy,” he said. “If there is injustice there, it’s not in the state system. It’s in the federal system.”
Though lawmakers insist the issue is not about race or ethnicity, the inherent cultural divide the issue has sparked was apparent in moments throughout the day. At one point, Antonio Aguirre, with the Austin Immigrants' Rights Coalition, provided testimony through an interpreter about God and family. He was sharply asked by state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, why, if he had been in the country more than 20 years, Aguirre needed an interpreter. (The clip was on YouTube before the committee adjourned.) The witness said he knew English but preferred to testify in Spanish because it was his first time doing so.
“It’s insulting to us. It’s very insulting,” Harris quipped back. “If he knows English, he needs to be speaking in English.” A mix of jeers and cheers of “thank you!” greeted Harris’ remarks.