It’s less bad than the Senate version, but it’s still not good.
A Texas House committee on Wednesday began debate on the lower chamber’s version of the controversial proposal to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions, making few but significant changes to the bill the Senate passed out last month.
Outlawing “sanctuary” entities, the common term for state and local governments and college campuses that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, has been deemed must-pass legislation by Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s likely a bill will make it to his desk before lawmakers gavel out in late May.
But members of the House State Affairs Committee also told witnesses and other lawmakers that Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will likely be revised several more times before it’s presented to the full House for a vote.
“It’s not perfect, it’s not complete and we will continue to work on it,” Fort Worth Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, the bill’s House sponsor, said during the hearing.
One major change to the proposal is that the House version makes inquiring into the status of an undocumented immigrant allowable only if that person is arrested. The Senate version is broader in that it applies to immigrants that are arrested or detained. Perry said during the Senate debate that meant a police officer could question a person’s status during even routine traffic stops.
Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said he appreciated Geren listening to his concerns and working with the members, but added that a person could still be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for a class C misdemeanor, which normally would only require them to pay a fine.
After a suggestion by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, the House committee is also working on a change that would prevent bail bond agents from charging a large amount of cash up front to bond out an undocumented immigrant. Geren said that currently, bondsmen can take advantage of an arrested person by knowingly accepting their money up front even though that person will likely be transferred to ICE agents for subsequent deportation.
As the lawmakers debated the language, hundreds pleaded with them to scrap the proposal altogether.
In all, 638 people registered to speak about the bill. Of those, 619 registered to voice opposition to the legislation, while just 11 registered in support. Eight were neutral.
The opponents included the Houston Police Department, which called the plan “short-sighted” and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who said it would strain relations with immigrant communities and make minorities less likely to report crimes. Despite the fierce opposition, neither Houston nor Harris County has adopted “sanctuary city” policies.
Others spoke of the impact on the lives of immigrants.
Sergio Govea, a 9-year-old, choked back tears as he told a reporter before the hearing about the constant fear that plagued him that his parents won’t return “every time they leave the house.”
“I haven’t lost my parents physically but they are not the same as they were before this,” he said. “They are scared to go to H-E-B to get food, a basic necessity. … I don’t even know if they will be there today when I get back home.”
The bill was left pending in committee, but it will come back (possibly with more changes) and when it gets voted on it will get sent to the full House. How long that will take is unclear at this time.
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.
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.”
Rep. Cook also indicated that the state should pay for detainer costs, not the counties. I appreciate the effort that Cook has made to make the bill less bad, but it’s still a bad bill that serves no good purpose.
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.”
Indeed. The danger here is that when the House version passes, the modifications made by the House could get gutted by the conference committee, with something close to the original Senate version passing. The only right answer is to keep opposing this bill.