Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect additional Republican senators expressing support for sanctuary cities legislation.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Texas Senate, would use fast-track procedures to crack down on “sanctuary” policies for undocumented immigrants if a special session were to be called, his office said this week.
Patrick aides said he would not use filibuster rules requiring a supermajority of votes during a 30-day special session, easing the chances for the immigration-related reforms.
“A simple 16-vote majority is all that is needed to pass legislation” during a special session, said Patrick spokesman Keith Elkins, when asked if the “sanctuary cities” bill would need a filibuster-proof majority in a special session.
The debate over sanctuary policies moved to the front and center of Texas politics this week when Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a scathing letter to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, warning that her lenient policies toward immigrants in her jail jeopardized public safety. The move came just days after the U.S. Senate in Washington gridlocked over legislation targeting such policies nationwide.
Despite warning that Texans were endangered by such policies, Abbott has since signaled that any state reforms should wait until 2017, when the Legislature reconvenes in regular session by order of the Texas Constitution. Conservative activists have said they want quicker action, and the statement by Patrick’s office suggests that they’d likely be able to get it done in a special session — though only Abbott has the power to call lawmakers back to the State Capitol.
Asked about the comments from Patrick’s office, an Abbott spokesman sent a link to a radio show that aired Wednesday. In the interview, with Lubbock KFYO talk show host Chad Hasty, Abbott all but ruled out immediate action on the issue, saying “it is not a special session item.” Instead the governor said he would urge voters to elect legislators who will commit to approving the legislation ahead of the 2017 session.
But a Texas Tribune tally shows the votes are already there in the Senate, and the House passed a version of the legislation as far back as 2011. In an interview Friday, state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, signaled the lower chamber would also pass the legislation should lawmakers be asked to do so.
“I do think the support is there in the House chamber to take action,” he said. But he added that he isn’t going to second-guess Abbott’s decision. Asked if he thought Abbott was making a mistake, Parker said he “defers to the wisdom of the governor” and supports whatever path he chose to follow.
Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, said that over the next year, the House would examine "the
relationship between local policies and federal immigration laws." But he added that the speaker "respects the governor's right to call a special session on whatever topic he deems necessary."
A few months ago in the Senate, two Republicans joined with Democrats in blocking consideration of the bill outlawing policies providing sanctuary for certain undocumented immigrants. Now, though, one of those Republicans has already joined the crackdown movement. And there now appear to be at least 18 votes in favor in the Senate — enough to pass it.
Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who had signaled opposition to bringing up the legislation last session, signed on to a letter, under the banner of the Texas Conservative Coalition, embracing the crackdown this week. There were 13 names on that list. The Tribune has since confirmed five more Republican senators — Konni Burton of Colleyville, Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown and Joan Huffman of Houston — would continue to support legislation prohibiting sanctuary city policies, though opinions vary among senators on the timing of a vote.
Retiring Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Sen. Kevin Eltife, the Tyler Republican who opposed such legislation earlier this year, said he would have to see what the bill says but generally favors "local control" and would lean against legislation forcing them to bend to the state's will. All the Democrats were opposed to the bill last session.
“It would probably pass,” said Seliger. “It sounds like it would pass on a party-line vote, and those are as valid as any other.”
Burton, the firebrand Republican who replaced former Democratic gubernatorial contender Wendy Davis in the Texas Senate, said she would defer to Abbott about the timing, but she signaled she was eager to get the bill passed.
“It is the prerogative of the governor to call a special session whenever he deems appropriate,” she said in an email. “If he were to call a special session for the purpose of ending the practice of ‘sanctuary city’ policies, I would be extremely supportive of his decision.”
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, also would support a special session, though he stopped short of saying Abbott had erred by not calling one.
“I would be very supportive of the governor calling a special session. I would be willing to go back down there and address this issue,” he said. “I am not going to say it’s a mistake on his part, I am not going to get into that with him. He knows more about the overall situation, and it’s his responsibility to make those decisions.”
Nichols and Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, both signaled support for Abbott’s approach, saying the reforms should be handled when lawmakers meet again in regular session in 2017. The lieutenant governor has said previously that he would ask the governor to make the legislation an emergency priority in the next regular session in January 2017.
Another lawmaker, a close ally of the speaker, suggested that Abbott could change his mind.
“I trust Gov. Abbott to make the right decision, and I think that just because he has not called a special session at this moment does not mean he can’t call a special session in the future if he sees fit,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who authored a bill dramatically beefing up state spending on border security. “In this process, backseat quarterbacking people is not effective.”