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House Committee Votes to Protect Immigrant Victims, Witnesses From Status Inquiry

In what some consider a dramatic shift from the anti-immigration rhetoric that dominated the state Capitol just two years ago, a House committee on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would protect immigrant victims of and witnesses to crimes.

Border Patrol officers outside a bus in Presidio.

Peace officers may soon be prohibited from asking about the immigration status of a victim of or a witness to crime, under a measure the House Committee on State Affairs approved Thursday.

The legislation, House Bill 3738, represents a dramatic shift from the anti-immigration rhetoric that permeated through the halls of the state Capitol just two years ago, said the bill’s author, Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth.

“People are recognizing that there are fundamental issues and problems that need to be addressed, and this bill is one of those issues,” he said. “All this bill accomplishes is to bring anybody and everybody under the protection of the law.”

The bill passed out of committee on an 8-to-4 vote.

Burnam said he considered amending the measure to exclude witnesses to make it more agreeable to some conservatives, but said he decided to keep with the original text after committee testimony. One of the most ardent advocates for the measure, he said, was Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who last session testified against several proposals that some members considered anti-immigrant, including the so-called sanctuary cities bill. That bill would have prohibited local governments from enacting policies that prevented peace officers from inquiring into the immigration status of a person detained or arrested by law enforcement. It failed to pass during the regular and special legislative sessions in 2011.

Burnam made clear that HB 3738 does not provide immunity or amnesty to people who provide law enforcement with information about a crime. Instead, he added, it ensures that everyone is on a level playing field so they can cooperate with officers and investigators without fear of deportation or other reprisals.

“It’s very specific in the law. This doesn’t refer to any subsequent interactions” with law enforcement, he said.

Burnam said the next challenge is to convince the House Calendars Committee, which must vote out the bill in order for it to be voted on by the full House, before next week. The deadline for the lower chamber to distribute its final calendar with bills and resolutions is Tuesday.

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