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State Senate approves 'sanctuary city' bill on straight party-line vote

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 15, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- Embracing one of Gov. Rick Perry's top priorities, the Texas Senate voted 19-12 on party lines early Wednesday to pass a so-called sanctuary city bill despite impassioned warnings from the chamber's Hispanics that the bill will breed discrimination and make Texas "an unwelcoming place."

Senate Bill 9 would halt state aid to local governments that prohibit local officers from inquiring about immigration status. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, the bill's sponsor, said the bill would permit -- but not require -- officers to ask about citizenship or immigration status when they arrest or detain someone.

Under pointed questioning from Democrats, Williams defended the bill as a needed deterrent against criminal elements entering the country from Mexico and said it would help establish a coherent statewide policy.

"This is not about political parties, nor is it about race or hate or fear-mongering," he said.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, evoked memories of 9-11 in saying that the bill could help "provide some additional protection .. . from those people who are here to harm us."

But the chamber's seven Hispanics assailed the bill in an emotional round of speeches before the final vote, saying the measure would lead to racial profiling and harassment of Latinos.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the dean of the Senate, asked the Hispanic senators to stand.

"Look at these members of the Senate," Whitmire declared. "This legislation will force them to prove that they are U.S. citizens. Members, we can do better. This is a sad day."

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said the bill will result in "unintended consequences," resulting in expensive civil rights lawsuits because of racial profiling. He also predicted that "Texas will be viewed as an unwelcoming place" for immigrants.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, a former Marine, recalled being subjected to bigotry while growing up and warned that the bill would lead to discrimination against "anyone who looks like me."

"I shouldn't have to prove my citizenship because my skin is a little darker than yours," he said. "This bill is hurtful, it's ignorant and it's offensive."

An earlier version of the bill died during the regular session that ended May 30, but Perry added it to the agenda of the subsequent special session.

"Texas owes it to the brave law enforcement officials, who put their lives on the line every day to protect our families and communities, to give them the discretion they need to adequately do their jobs," Perry said in placing the issue on the agenda. The bill is designed to prevent policies that effectively allow cities to become "sanctuaries for illegal immigrants," he has said.

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead, Arlington Deputy Police Chief Jennifer White and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez have opposed the bill, as has outgoing Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief.

Law enforcement leaders from the state's large cities say the requirements will increase their costs, impose extra duties on already overburdened officers and make Hispanics afraid to cooperate with law enforcement.

Senators adopted an amendment that would prohibit peace officers from stopping a motor vehicle or conducting searches solely to enforce federal immigration laws.

Hispanic groups have submitted thousands of petition signatures calling on the Legislature to reject the bill. Some Hispanic leaders say they believe the measure reflects an anti-Latino bias in the Legislature that also includes a voter identification measure and a series of redistricting plans that they say largely ignore Latinos' surging population growth over the past decade.

But Williams said his bill includes protections against racial profiling and told colleagues that "rogue officers" who try to abuse the law will likely face sanctions by their superiors. He said the bill is not aimed at "economic" immigrants who come to the United States to find work but will "send a loud and clear message to criminal illegal aliens that we will not tolerate their presence in Texas."

Williams said the policy would replace a "patchwork" of differing requirements at the local level. The bill is needed, he said, because of the federal government's "failure" to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

But opponents said the bill would open the door to overzealous law enforcement and give officers with a bias against illegal immigrants the power to pursue personal agendas. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill, said the measure would deter witnesses from coming forward to assist police.

The bill would also put into statute a Department of Public Safety policy to require proof of U.S. citizenship to acquire driver's licenses. Another provision would require law enforcement officers to run the background of anyone arrested and placed in city and county jails against the federal Department of Homeland Security immigration database.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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