The commotion heard two years ago over immigration-related legislation in Texas has so far been dulled to a whisper during the current session, but a handful of bills are on track to potentially spark intense debate.
The measures include legislation that would mandate that local jails enforce federal immigration detainers, require companies with state contracts to use a federal employment verification system, and repeal the state’s policy that requires proof of legal residency for driver’s licenses.
State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, the author of House Bill 3206, which would repeal the policy that requires applicants for new or renewed driver’s licenses to show proof of legal status, said that unauthorized immigrants are going to drive regardless, and allowing them access to a license actually improves safety because it identifies who the people are.
“The bottom line is that this is for safety, this is for security and it’s the right thing to do,” Alonzo said. “We all know that immigration is not a state issue, it’s a federal issue, they’re dealing with it over there. This is a practical law, a practical proposal, they’re driving, we know they’re driving and they fulfill they’re requirements by taking a test and doing everything that’s necessary.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety enacted the rule in 2008. It was challenged in courts after plaintiffs said the department acted without legislative authority. The measure failed to get passed in 2009 as a stand-alone bill but was codified in 2011 after the rule was amended to a fiscal matters bill.
Last session, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, authored the original bill that requires proof of statusw. He had said that Texas was only one of a few states that allowed people in the country illegally to obtain a license. He argued that the new policy would improve public safety.
Alonzo said he has the support of the Texas Association of Business and Norman Adams, the co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy, a group of Republicans pushing for immigration reform that includes a guest-worker program.
The DPS declined to comment on the pending legislation.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, filed HB 2187, which involves the federal Secure Communities initiative and how county and city jails enforce it. The policy mandates that the fingerprints of a person arrested must be run through a federal database to determine if they are deportable under current immigration laws.
Krause’s bill would require that within 48 hours of a person’s arrest and before his or her bail was set, the arrested person’s prints would be run through the program and that information would be passed on to a magistrate or a bond hearing.
“The complaints we were getting from constituents and around the state is that they would go through SCOMM, and a detainer would sometimes come back and the counties wouldn’t necessarily enforce the detainer,” he said. “And even if they were enforcing the detainer, a lot of judges and magistrates didn’t know that when looking at bail.”
Critics have alleged that although purported to be a program to ferret out violent criminals, Secure Communities has instead led to the deportation of many who were arrested for only minor violations.
The bill requires that the agency holding the defendant must enforce the detainer or pass the information along to a judge. Krause said that his bill would not allow law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of a person detained by law enforcement, which last session’s controversial measure to ban “sanctuary cities” would have allowed. He added that Secure Communities is already in place statewide and that every person booked into jails has his or her fingerprints run, so there is no possibility of racial profiling.
The Obama administration has said its goal is to have Secure Communities implemented nationwide by the end of this year.
Lawmakers are wading into E-Verify waters as well. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services manages the system, which compares the information that potential workers submit to an employer on their I-9 — a federal document that collects employment-eligibility information — to records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.
HB 1730, by state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would require that companies with contracts with state agencies use the system. He said he hoped the measure would lay the groundwork and become a proven enforcement mechanism if comprehensive immigration reform, currently debated at the federal level, is passed.
“We do need to get this guest-worker immigration issue squared away, but I think a key part of that is what is going to be the mechanism for enforcement and compliance and that’s all this is,” he said.
White added that he is aware of concerns over E-Verify and what employers have said are mismatches, where eligible employees are deemed ineligible and unauthorized workers get through the system.
“There is no government situation that is flawless,” he said. “What we need to do is make sure the business would not be held liable or responsible if they have taken the information” and hired an unauthorized worker who was approved by the system and later found to be unauthorized, he said. White’s bill has been referred to the House State Affairs Committee.