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Sanctuary Cities in Committee

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Thursday the Texas Senate heard hours of testimony on SB 4, a bill to ban Sanctuary Cities in Texas. The gallery was predictably animated at several points during the hearing, with activists taking to song and chant to protest the legislation.

There is no legal definition of a Sanctuary City/County, but it is generally understood to be a city or county that refuses to cooperate with Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to detain illegal immigrants until they can be collected by federal agents.

Republican legislators have wished to pass this legislation for several years, but previous bills died due to lack of support from leaders under the dome. This year could be different. The effort has gained considerable traction since Gov. Greg Abbott threw his weight behind it in his State of the State address.

Sanctuary Cities have been a hot topic in Austin ever since the governor and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez got into a row that has gained national attention. It started when Sheriff Hernandez vowed to defy President Donald Trump by forbidding her department to cooperate with the new administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

Gov. Abbott responded on Fox News that he would like to pass a bill in the Texas Legislature that would give the state the authority to remove her and other non-compliant law enforcement heads from their positions.

Supporters of SB 4, authored by Lubbock Sen. Charles Perry, argue sanctuary policies undermine American national sovereignty and make communities less safe.

A recent report by the New York Times identified at least 364 U.S. counties with sanctuary policies. Travis County is number 365.

Many Democrats and other opponents of the bill accused Sen. Perry of attempting to convert local law enforcement officials into federal immigration agents. Perry addressed the issue directly in his opening remarks: “(T)his is not true. Nowhere in the bill does it instruct officers to demand papers. Nowhere in the bill does it allow officers to stop a person solely to enforce federal immigration law.” He went on to clarify, “The bill requires local entities to comply with immigration detainers.”

But what does that mean? According to the American Immigration Council, when ICE is notified that a suspected illegal immigrant is being held in a local or state jail, they issue a request to the jail, asking them not to release the suspect until agents can investigate his or her legal status. Once local charges have been disposed (if the suspect posts bail, or the charges are dropped or dismissed), the local agency must release the suspect unless ICE has requested additional detainment. Federal law prohibits local agencies from holding the suspects for more than 48 hours after local charges are disposed. Put plainly, SB 4 would require places like Travis County to hold suspected illegal immigrants until ICE agents could collect them.

The bill also prevents local law enforcement agencies from creating “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policies where officers would be prohibited from asking about the legal status of arrested suspects.

Many opponents raised concerns that witnesses to crimes would be afraid to speak to police, but Sen. Perry assured them his bill specifically protects witnesses and victims of crimes from being delivered to ICE.

Under SB 4, cities or counties adopting sanctuary policies would lose their state funding for at least one year and would not have them restored until they came into compliance with the law. Additionally, the official responsible for the release of illegal immigrants would be held liable if those immigrants subsequently commit additional crimes.

If the bill becomes law, it faces imminent legal challenges from those who believe the detainment requests to be unconstitutional. Indeed, a federal judge ruled so just last September. The issue may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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