Texas Politics

Texas lawmakers revive bill to ban ‘sanctuary cities’

Texas Sen. Charles Perry speaks during a Senate subcommittee hearing Monday on border security.
Texas Sen. Charles Perry speaks during a Senate subcommittee hearing Monday on border security. The Texas Tribune

The Texas Senate revived a divisive immigration enforcement bill Monday that would ban so-called sanctuary cities, rekindling an issue that rocked the Legislature in years past with emotional debates over racial profiling.

While similar measures have not passed in previous years, and this one still has a long way to go, newly emboldened Texas Republicans have promised to get tough on illegal immigration.

The term sanctuary city has no legal meaning; it is typically used to describe local governments that forbid police from asking about a person’s immigration status. A bill by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would prohibit local governments from implementing such policies.

The House, meanwhile, tackled immigration too. Members voted unanimously to pass a measure meant to curb human trafficking as part of a plan on border security, its first approved bill of the legislative session, which began Jan. 13.

Such consensus was nowhere to be found, though, during a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security, which heard testimony about Perry’s bill.

Perry said police shouldn’t be barred from using all tools at their disposal when enforcing the law.

“These criminals swarm into our major cities knowing full well nothing will be done to them,” Perry said. “The rule of law is important. A society without law is anarchy.”

Civil-rights activists warn that immigration status inquiries are likely to lead to racial profiling of minorities. And some law enforcement groups say they will likely cause some crime victims not to call police if they fear being asked about their immigration status.

“This will push people further into the shadows, which harms public safety,” Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local law enforcement officials don’t want to engage in federal immigration law.

“What’s next? The county sheriff’s going to be knocking on your door asking if you’ve paid your income taxes?” Wiles said.

Perry said the bill bans racial profiling and said he trusts that law officers would use proper discretion. Police also could not detain people to question them solely about their immigration status, Perry said.

Business groups have opposed the bill, warning that it could harm trade with Mexico.

The bill was expected to be left pending in the subcommittee with a vote expected later.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry made the issue a legislative priority, and a bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but failed without a final vote in the House under pressure from business groups. The 2011 Senate vote followed eight hours of debate in which Democrats railed against the bill as racist and a tool to harass Hispanics.

Later Monday, the House voted 143-0 to approve a proposal sponsored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, a 47-year House member.

The bill would make it easier to prosecute the crime of forcing minors into prostitution by expanding the statute of limitations for such offenses. It would also increase training in human-trafficking issues for state judiciary officials and would establish a state unit to fight sex trafficking.

Thompson’s bill was fast-tracked through the Legislature because Gov. Greg Abbott made border security an “emergency item.” It now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to enjoy bipartisan support, unlike Perry’s sanctuary cities measure.