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Key chairman says House will take its time on "sanctuary" legislation

A day after hearing from peace officers largely opposed to the state's current proposal to outlaw "sanctuary cities," the chairman of the House committee that controls the proposal's future said he'd like to see some significant changes.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, listens to the first round of testimony of hundreds signed up against SB 4 the sanctuary cities bill on March 15, 2017.

The chairman of the powerful committee that determines whether immigration proposals will move forward in the Texas House said Thursday he’d like to see the current proposal to outlaw sanctuary jurisdictions scaled back.

A “sanctuary” jurisdiction is the common term for government entities and college campuses that don’t enforce federal immigration laws. Passing a bill is considered a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott this session but state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs committee, said he is in no hurry to rush through the process.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to get this right,” Cook said at the Capitol the morning after a marathon hearing on the current measure, Senate bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. The legislative session ends on May 29.

The anti-“sanctuary city” proposal has evolved over the last six years from a bill that would let local police officers ask people about their immigration status to the current version that would also punish local sheriffs, police officers and constables for not honoring requests, known as detainers, from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to hand over undocumented immigrants in custody for possible deportation. 

Abbott called banning sanctuary jurisdictions a priority after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, announced following her 2016 election victory that she would only honor detainer requests on a very limited basis. As punishment, Abbott yanked state-grant funding for all county programs.

Cook said Thursday he thinks the bill could be consolidated to only include the detainer provision. Testimony from hundreds of witnesses at Wednesday's hearing reflected a sentiment that allowing officers to question a person's immigration status without arresting them would create a chilling effect that would erode the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

Cook took note of those concerns, he said.

“If you look at this on the big picture [level], all we’re really needing to do, all that’s really been said is that local jurisdictions need to honor federal detainer requests,” he said, noting Hernandez was the only outlier.  “And what the testimony indicated once again last night is that though one sheriff deviated for a short period of time, all our law enforcement agencies across the state are in fact honoring detainer requests, as they're supposed to.”

The current proposal would punish police chiefs, constables and sheriffs for violating the provision of the bill, making them subject to a criminal class A misdemeanor charge and the potential removed from office. 

He added that local governments shouldn’t be tasked with paying for the detention of an inmate that’s going to be transferred into federal custody.

“I can also tell you that any cost associated with honoring a detainer request in detention should be borne 100 percent by the state and not by the local jurisdictions,” he said.

In 2016, Texas counties spent about $55 million holding more than 42,000 inmates with ICE detainers, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of data collected by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. That’s compared to the $4.7 million in federal grants they received to offset those costs.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said he’s on board with Cook’s desire to limit the scope of the bill and said the issue has become a political football more than anything else.

“If it was just dealing with detainers in the jails, it addresses [the Republicans’] issue, which is really just to get a vote on an immigration issue,” he said. “Because this is all politics, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll still vote against it but at least it’s not as bad as it can be.”

Rodriguez added that the assumption that Democrats aren't for the rule of law because they've been vocal opponents of the bill is flat-out wrong.

"If you’re an undocumented person and you commit a crime, a violent crime, [a class A misdemeanor] or above, certainly you should be incarcerated and you should also serve time here, in Travis County or any county in Texas where you’re arrested just for the sake of justice," he said. "You’re not going to find anyone in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus saying that person shouldn’t be detained." 

Cook and Rodriguez aren't the only lawmakers who want the House to take its time crafting the lower chamber's version. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said several times during Wednesday's hearing that he's willing to work with both Democrats and Republicans on the bill as the current session, which is nearing its half-way point, continues.

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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85th Legislative Session Byron Cook Greg Abbott Sanctuary cities