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GOP Lawmakers Still Targeting Sanctuary Cities

During an interim Senate committee hearing on border security, Republicans left no doubt they are hell-bent on passing state-based immigration measures when lawmakers return to Austin in 2017.

Sen. Charles Perry R-Lubbock during a September 22 Criminal Justice Committee

Local governments that testified against his unsuccessful legislation to outlaw sanctuary cities should be cut out of the $800 million state lawmakers allocated for border security funding in the 2015 session, a Republican state senator suggested Thursday.

The suggestion by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, came during an interim Senate committee hearing on border security during which Republicans left no doubt they are hell-bent on passing state-based immigration measures when lawmakers return to Austin in 2017.

Perry's bill, which sought to prohibit Texas cities and counties from refusing to enforce federal immigration laws, was opposed by several local governments and law enforcement agencies that feared it would erode the ties between the community and police. 

“Is there any reason why a state cannot withhold funding from those individual entities that have indicated [they are opposed] by testifying against the legislation that would prohibit them from having internal policies contrary to what we’re trying to achieve?” Perry asked Deputy Attorney General Brantley Starr.

Starr said nothing in statute prohibits the monies from being withheld and Perry subsequently urged the senators to seek guidance from the Legislative Budget Board or the state comptroller’s office on the matter.

“I would like to make sure that we don’t, in effect, dilute dollars. And I’ve got a list of those that testified against legislation,” he said.

The hearing by the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Subcommittee on Border Security was the first of many promised by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Immigration was thrust back into the spotlight last month after Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat, announced she was going to honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates, known as ICE detainers, on a case-by-case basis. Gov. Greg Abbott immediately rebuked Valdez and ordered all Texas sheriffs to cooperate with ICE or risk losing state funding.

At Thursday's hearing, Valdez wasn’t allowed to testify despite repeated requests by state Sens. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston and Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. She told reporters earlier in the day that she hasn’t refused any federal detainers, and the issue was misunderstood.

“Zero,” she said. “Every single detainer that they have asked us for” has been honored. Valdez added that on one side she is being sued over claims that she and her deputies are overzealous in their cooperation with federal authorities. "And one side is angry at us because we don't hold everybody," she said.

But lawmakers from both sides of the aisle conceded during the hearing that on some issues — like defining a “sanctuary city” or what ability states have to enforce immigration law — there are more questions than answers.

“There is no one defined definition that we know of in the law [of a sanctuary city],” Starr told the committee. “It would probably be either of two things: a policy, formal or informal, that is prohibiting individuals from investigating, inquiring into, acting on or reporting the immigration status of a person. Or it’s a policy that would prohibit or discourage officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities on [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detainers.”

But Starr said that according to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on a controversial immigration bill, states are allowed some wiggle room to enforce immigration laws, despite most immigration matters falling under the federal government's purview.

Committee members also attempted to better understand the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, that the Department of Homeland Security implemented earlier this year. The program directs immigration officers to focus deportation efforts on convicted criminals or others that “pose a threat to public safety,” according to ICE. That system replaced the Secure Communities program, which made undocumented immigrants charged with even minor crimes deportable under federal laws.

Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, the Texas Sheriff's Association’s legislative director, said the change has made Texas less safe.

“Texas sheriffs are here in this state to enforce the rule of law. How we handle criminal aliens in this country is in large part up to the federal government,” he said. “Personally, a lot of Texas sheriffs believe that they fail. The Priority Enforcement Program ... severely weakens this country and this state.”

Before the hearing, Democrats and members of the religious community decried efforts to pass state-based immigration laws. They said, as they have since 2011 when sanctuary cities proposals first made headway at the Capitol, that immigrants would be less likely to cooperate with police for fear of being deported.

“Immigrants will be far less likely to report crimes, like domestic abuse,” state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said. “This type of legislation will cause more problems than it will solve.”

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