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House committee advances scaled-down "sanctuary cities" bill

The latest version of the Texas Legislature’s bill to outlaw "sanctuary cities" in Texas is a scaled-down version of what the state Senate passed out in February.

A coalition of immigrant rights groups protest SB 4 at the East steps of the Texas Capitol prior to a committee hearing on the sanctuary cities bill on March 15, 2017.

The latest version of the Texas Legislature’s bill to outlaw sanctuary cities in the state is a scaled-down version of what the state Senate passed out in February.

But the measure is still a bitter disappointment to Democrats and progressive groups who say the changes will do little to ease the fears of the immigrant community who will be less likely to report crimes. 

Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, passed out of the House State Affairs committee Wednesday after a 7-to-5, party-line vote. The House version is being carried by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Like the Senate version, it still makes sheriffs, constables and police chiefs subject to a Class A misdemeanor for failing to cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold non-citizen inmates subject to removal — usually booked on crimes unrelated to immigration violations.

But the House version only allows peace officers to ask people about their immigration status if they are arrested and not those who have been solely detained for other reasons.

Despite the changes, some Democrats still argued that cops shouldn’t be in the immigration-enforcement business.

“It still creates a chilling effect for immigrants to work with local law enforcement, and it still perverts the mission of local law enforcement,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “You can be arrested for anything, virtually. It doesn’t require due process, it simply requires probable cause.”

The House bill also kept in tact the Senate’s requirement to include college campuses in the bill’s provisions. Anchia said that could lead to deportation for college students for something as minor as being in the possession of an open container of alcohol, which would normally result in a citation.

But Geren said he worked diligently on the bill to try to appease some of its critics. His version clarifies that it doesn’t apply to public schools or hospital districts, and he added a provision where law officers hired by religious organizations wouldn’t be subject to the bill’s requirements.

Geren also changed language in the bill to make a punishment only applicable to the head of the law enforcement agency deemed non-compliant. The Senate version allows the state to withhold funds from the entire local government body, similar to the punishment Gov. Greg Abbott issued to Travis County earlier this year after Sheriff Sally Hernandez decided she would limit cooperation with federal immigration officials.

“There is no need to remove the state grants funds” from the entire government body, he said. “That goes beyond just targeting the jail.”

But the House version also keeps in the civil penalties that could be as much as $25,000 for entities that adopt policies restricting cooperation with federal authorities.

The bill is expected to be debated by the full House sometime in the next couple of weeks, lawmakers said. That’s where it is likely to undergo another round of changes. Far-right Republicans have already tried to amend a Child Protective Services bill and the biennial budget bill to include immigration language. Though those attempts were unsuccessful, Anchia said Democrats should brace for what could be a lengthy floor fight.  

One thing is clear however: Lawmakers have no choice but to pass some type of bill. Abbott has identified the legislation as a priority, prompting speculation that the Legislature would be called back for a special session this summer if a bill fails to reach his desk.

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