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House committee makes changes to anti-"sanctuary" bill

More than 600 people signed up on Wednesday to testify before the House State Affairs Committee on the lower chamber's version of the controversial proposal to outlaw "sanctuary" jurisdictions.

State Affairs Committee member Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, at the hearing on Senate Bill 4, the "sanctuary cities" bill, on March 15, 2017.

A Texas House committee on Wednesday began debate on the lower chamber’s version of the controversial proposal to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions, making few but significant changes to the bill the Senate passed out last month.

Outlawing “sanctuary” entities, the common term for state and local governments and college campuses that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, has been deemed must-pass legislation by Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s likely a bill will make it to his desk before lawmakers gavel out in late May.

But members of the House State Affairs Committee also told witnesses and other lawmakers that Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will likely be revised several more times before it’s presented to the full House for a vote.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not complete and we will continue to work on it,” Fort Worth Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, the bill’s House sponsor, said during the hearing.

One major change to the proposal is that the House version makes inquiring into the status of an undocumented immigrant allowable only if that person is arrested. The Senate version is broader in that it applies to immigrants that are arrested or detained. Perry said during the Senate debate that meant a police officer could question a person’s status during even routine traffic stops.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said he appreciated Geren listening to his concerns and working with the members, but added that a person could still be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for a class C misdemeanor, which normally would only require them to pay a fine.

Geren said that if a person lands in jail for any reason, his or her fingerprints are already checked and that the bill would only require cooperation with ICE.

“Now, if you go to jail and you are booked in, as soon as you are fingerprinted that goes to the FBI fingerprint system and that dings ICE,” he said. But he added that if a person did something to get sent to jail in the first place, that he or she likely did something more than violate an immigration law. But Geren still said he’d continue to work with Democrats on language that could potentially narrow the scope of the legislation to apply to a person who is arrested and charged with a class A misdemeanor or a felony.

Another change added police chiefs to the list of supervisors that could be charged with a class A misdemeanor – and be potentially removed from office — for violating the provision of the bill. The previous version only included constables and sheriffs.

After a suggestion by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, the House committee is also working on a change that would prevent bail bond agents from charging a large amount of cash up front to bond out an undocumented immigrant. Geren said that currently, bondsmen can take advantage of an arrested person by knowingly accepting their money up front even though that person will likely be transferred to ICE agents for subsequent deportation.

Testimony on Wednesday was overwhelmingly in opposition to the measure. When registration to testify closed at 4 p.m., more than 630 people had signed up; only about a dozen were in favor of the bill. Witnesses were standing outside the committee room for hours before they were allowed to take a seat, with several dozen being asked to sit in one of two overflow rooms provided for the hearing. Immigrants and their supporters sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at full volume and did their best to drown out the shouts from the few supporters of the bill who said that immigrants in the country illegally should be deported.

As of Wednesday evening, hundreds were still waiting to testify on the measure. It's likely the hearing will continue into the night.

The opposition included peace officers from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, who stated the bill would have a chilling effect on immigrant communities and create hurdles for officers who need the public’s input to solve crimes.

Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputy Shelley Knight said that’s already happening in her community.

“When we [knock] on these doors and we’re trying to talk to the public and just get information in where these wanted criminals are, they’re not wanting to talk to us,” she said. “They’re not wanting to open the doors out of fear that something is going to happen to them."

It’s unclear when the committee will take the measure up again for a final vote before being sent to the group of lawmakers that sets the House calendar. It’s likely lawmakers will make more significant changes to the bill before that happens. During testimony, Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez asked Geren to consider including language that excludes public schools from being subject to the provisions of the bill.

Geren said he didn’t think that was necessary because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has already made clear that immigration checks can’t be performed at public schools. But he said he’d work with lawmakers and add in the language.

Another change that’s likely would be the addition of language to clarify that an entity that has no written policy forbidding or allowing immigration-status checks is also in compliance with the provisions of Senate Bill 4.

“Is there a way we can make that clearer?” Rodriguez asked.

“If you can come up with some language, I’d be more than happy to look at it,” Geren said. 

Earlier in the day, Oliveira also made clear he'd like to introduce language that would exclude certain community clinics from being subject to the bill's provisions. He said that would prevent undocumented immigrants who know or think they have a communicable disease from going without treatment for fear they could be rounded up and deported at a health clinic. 

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • Outnumbered and with time running out, Texas Democrats hoping to kill anti-"sanctuary" legislation are open to shining a spotlight on so-called "sanctuary industries" that often turn a blind eye toward hiring unauthorized labor.
  • A 2006 settlement between an El Paso County resident and his local sheriff's department could come back and haunt the border town if the Texas Legislature passes its anti-"sanctuary cities" bill. 
  • The Republican-controlled Texas Senate gave its final stamp of approval on Wednesday to a controversial bill that would gut funding from local and state entities that don’t enforce immigration laws.


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