On the eve of the vote on Senate Bill 4, otherwise known as the “anti-sanctuary cities bill,” more than 13,000 immigrants flooded House representatives’ offices with petitions, letters and photographs, pleading with lawmakers to vote no. In the morning, dozens gathered in protests inside and outside the state capitol, including Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. And as debate began, House members who themselves were once undocumented immigrants or were children of undocumented immigrants made passionate appeals, charging that SB 4 was an unnecessary, racist bill that would instill fear in Latino communities. Many of them cried.
Nevertheless, around 3 a.m., after more than 16 hours of debate, the bill passed 93-54, along party lines. Governor Greg Abbott will almost certainly sign the legislation, after designating SB 4 an emergency item earlier this session.
The bill allows police officers — including officers on college campuses — to ask about immigration status while arresting or detaining someone for any purpose. The policy requires law enforcement agencies to comply with immigration detainers issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, which ask local entities to hold onto people suspected of being in the country illegally until ICE can pick them up. Should any law enforcement agency adopt a policy that “prohibits enforcement of immigration law,” the sheriff or police chief can be removed from office and charged with a Class A misdemeanor, and the jurisdictions can be fined.
Democrats tried to add various amendments to the bill to shield immigrants from interrogations about their status at places like domestic violence shelters, preschools, homeless shelters and public school extracurricular events for their kids. They also tried to shield children from questioning. None of the amendments passed.
Immigrant groups decried the bills’s passage, while Democrats said it was a “dark day for the Texas Legislature.”
“Today we saw legislators scrambling to turn their anti-immigrant brand of race-based hate into laws that would criminalize families and children, and people of color in Texas," Karla Perez, an undocumented law student from the University of Houston Law Center and state coordinator with United We Dream, said in a statement. "The purpose of this legislation is clear in its attack of immigrant communities."
Public safety was at the heart of the argument for those both for and against the anti-sanctuary cities bill.
Politicians such as Governor Abbott have said the bill is intended to stop undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes, by handing over any undocumented immigrant charged with a crime to ICE. During his state of the state speech, he suggested SB 4 could have stopped Juan Rios from killing two people — but Rios had in fact already been deported three times by then. And Democrats and law enforcement leaders have countered that existing laws already give law enforcement the ability to cooperate with ICE and hand over arrested undocumented immigrants. According to a January 2016 Texas Tribune investigation, Texas jails comply with ICE immigration detainer requests 99 percent of the time (federal law doesn’t require them to comply with the requests).
Police leaders across Texas, meanwhile, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, warned that this bill would make communities less safe. Law enforcement officials and those in immigrant communities fear the law will have a chilling effect on undocumented immigrants, causing them to not report crimes or come forward as witnesses for fear that contact with police can lead to ICE detention and deportation.
"Broad mandates for local law enforcement to take a more active role in immigration enforcement will further strain the relationship between local law enforcement and the diverse communities they serve," Acevedo wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “This will lead to less cooperation from members of the community and foster the belief that they cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration status investigation."
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In a lengthy speech, Representative Rafael Anchia asked members of the House why they were choosing to ignore the opinions of those in law enforcement in favor of political gain. He spoke for about ten minutes, uninterrupted, and retraced the Legislature’s and state’s track record on discriminatory laws or policies targeting Latinos that have been argued in federal courts. Asking lawmakers to understand the context surrounding the Latino community’s massive outcry against SB 4, he noted that that the voter ID law and redistricting bills passed in 2011 have been ruled not just discriminatory, but intentionally discriminatory, six times in federal court. He noted that, despite the fact that Latino kids have made up the majority of public school students since 2011, the Legislature made historic public education cuts that year, and later the State Board of Education attempted to “eliminate our history in textbooks and in the curriculum standards.”
“Then you guys come with this bill. In light of that entire context, how are we supposed to swallow this? How are we supposed to understand this?” he asked. “If it’s being fed to us about a way to keep our community safe, then why are we ignoring all of law enforcement that said this bill is going to make us less safe?
He continued: “If it’s not about ICE detainers, it’s not about [stopping] violent criminals, it’s not about law enforcement, then it feels like it’s about something else. …I don’t know how to synthesize this, how to consume this in any other way: If it’s not about all those other things that people say it’s about, then I ask you, what is it about? When we stood out there today, I saw children crying. I saw mothers trembling. If you have succeeded in anything, members, you have succeeded in terrifying an entire community.”
Representative Ana Hernandez told of once being an undocumented immigrant, and the fear that she and her family experienced even during a simple trip to the grocery store. Representative Victoria Neave, holding a picture of her undocumented father, told how he began his own TV and VCR repair business and ultimately gave her a better life. In the days leading up to the vote on SB 4, she had fasted in protest. She held up letters she received from SB 4 supporters telling her to starve.