Texas peace officers will be allowed to inquire about the immigration status of any person arrested or legally detained under legislation passed by the Texas Senate early Wednesday morning.
The body voted to pass the special session version of the sanctuary cities bill out of the upper chamber along a party line vote, 19 to 12, after roughly six hours of debate.
The bill, SB 9 by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would deny state funds to entities that prohibit peace officers and employees of special districts from inquiring into the status of a person arrested or detained for the investigation of crime. It also expands the federal government’s Secure Communities initiative to all detention facilities, and codifies tighter regulations for applicants for driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs. Gov. Rick Perry added the measure to the special session agenda last week.
Williams fought off repeated accusations that his bill is a blatant attempt to empower local law enforcement to act as immigration officers and deport illegal immigrants. He said there is no provision in the law that requires or allows them to do so. Instead, he said it was a necessary measure to identify criminal aliens intent on harming Texans, especially as the violence in Mexico continues unabated.
“If during the course of whatever criminal or traffic [offense], whatever they are investigating, they come to the belief that that person is in the country illegally, this bill gives them the discretion [to determine what to do],” he said during the debate.
The sticking point for opponents, however, is that the “discretion” allows officers to contact federal authorities — who do have the authority to deport someone — even if an officer detained the person in question without the intent of making an arrest.
The debate resurrected the concerns Democrats, major city police chiefs and county sheriffs have that the bill would deter witnesses or victims of crimes from stepping forward.
Several law enforcement officers testified the bill would not only erode the success of what they labeled “community policing,” but also cost most of them millions more annually to detain immigrants and train officers.
An amendment by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, that would have excluded witnesses or victims of crime from being subjected to the inquiry failed on a party line vote. An amendment by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that would have excluded children 17 years or younger and victims of crimes, including sex or trafficking crimes, also failed. Williams said the amendments would have the unintended consequences of possibly prohibiting the federal government from issuing the victims of T or U visas, which are given to immigrant victims of sex or trafficking crimes who agree to cooperate with law enforcement. The votes fueled Democrats’ speculation that the bill was not just an attempt to rid the state of criminal aliens, which Williams said was the bill’s intent during his opening remarks.
Williams, however, routinely dismissed claims that the bill would erode trust in law enforcement when he pointed to testimony Monday by a woman who said she cooperated with police officers when her abusive partner constantly badgered her and her daughter. The witness said she initially gave in to her fears and called the police, but testified that she would have been scared to do so if SB 9 was in place, for fear of being deported.
“What she said yesterday exemplifies what is going to happen,” said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. “They are going to fear calling the police.”
Williams said the witness was confused and said she was already afraid of law enforcement before SB 9 was even considered. He added that he didn’t share Davis’ concern that his legislation would lead to greater fear.
There was also a rehash of what “lawfully detained” means as it is stated in the bill. Davis referenced testimony offered Monday from Shannon Edmonds, the director of governmental affairs for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, who testified as a resource witness that the term is ambiguous at best. During questioning from Uresti, Williams was asked if being “detained during the investigation of a crime” meant any crime committed at any time. Williams said that definition would be applicable under the bill. Davis then attempted to amend the bill to require that officers first establish probable cause before a subject could be detained. It also failed on a party line vote.
Democrats may consider it a minor victory that Williams accepted an amendment by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that would adopt current policies practiced by the Texas Department of Public Safety that would prevent an officer from stopping a vehicle or searching a business or residence for the exclusive purpose of enforcing immigration laws unless they are providing assistance to a federal agency. The amendment would also prevent an officer from arresting, without a warrant, a person solely because she or he was thought to be in Texas illegally.
The current bill excludes public school, junior college and hospital districts. The original bill included campus peace officers, which led many to fear the provision would lead to lawsuits from persons alleging they were being denied access to an education, which is required by the state and federal constitutions. They also feared the bill would discourage immigrants from obtaining proper medical care.
The bill also includes a provision by which a citizen living in the jurisdiction of an affected entity may file a complaint with the Texas attorney general if they believe the entity is in violation of the law. An amendment by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would have allowed a citizen to file a complaint against an officer or other employee if the person was alleged to have engaged in racial profiling. Williams said he was thankful Van de Putte brought the matter to his attention, but said he preferred to have the attorney general consider the matter before adopting the language. The amendment was tabled following another party line vote.
The final vote came after Democrats showed their respect to Williams for doing what he thought was right. But they also issued a passionate plea to Republican lawmakers to stop and think about what the law meant for anyone in Texas, legal or illegal, that was not an Anglo.
“I can’t think of another piece of legislation that I believe will be judged to be so unfair and so inequitable as this piece of legislation,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We must slow down, members. It’s our moral duty to stand up against discrimination. We’re fixing to impact every Hispanic citizen in the state of Texas.”
Whitmire then asked the Hispanic members of the Senate to stand so he could "put a face" on what the bill would mean for Texans of Hispanic descent. Meanwhile, a protester in the gallery walked with a sign that simply read "Shame." He was quickly removed from the gallery by DPS officers.
The bill now moves to the Texas House, where HB 12, the sanctuary cities legislation during the regular session, sailed out of the lower chamber. State Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, authored that legislation but said today he was not sure whether he would carry SB 9 during the special session. The driver’s license and Secure Communities provisions, he said, could send the bill to the Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. Solomons also said the bill could get voted out of committee as soon as this week. He was unsure whether there would be another opportunity for public testimony at that time.