Hundreds packed the Texas capitol Thursday to hear or provide testimony mostly against Senate Bill 4, the anti-sanctuary cities bill, as protesters surrounded the capitol grounds to oppose the legislation.
The controversial bill would punish any local entity or police agency — including those on college campuses — that prohibits or even "discourages" peace officers from being able to inquire about someone's immigration status or country of origin during an arrest, leading critics to fear an uptick in racial profiling.
It would require all law-enforcement agencies to honor detainer requests made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in which sheriffs are asked to hold someone suspected of being in the country illegally until the feds can swing by and pick them up to begin deportation proceedings. They would be detained even if a judge has cleared them to be released from jail on bond, or because their case has been dismissed or adjudicated, leading critics to believe the bill violates the Fourth Amendment and due process rights.
Should police agencies refuse to honor the detainers — even though, under the law, they are allowed to refuse them — state government would deny them grant funds for the following fiscal year. This has led critics to fear that this bill is further punishing the state's most vulnerable citizens, who may rely on various state-funded services for their well-being.
Police chiefs from Austin and San Antonio, as well as sheriffs from Bexar, Travis and El Paso counties, came out against the bill Thursday, telling the Senate State Affairs Committee that local law enforcement shouldn't be doing the work of federal immigration agents. Primarily, they feared the bill would sever police's relationship with immigrant communities and leave undocumented people afraid to come forward as victims or witnesses in crimes, believing they could be deported.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez did not attend the hearing, but wrote a letter to the committee making clear his opposition. He wrote:
As currently drafted, I am concerned that Senate Bill 4 could limit our ability to address a myriad of local safety priorities – such as rape, murder and human trafficking to elder abuse and the challenges of mental health in our criminal justice system. I am also concerned about the risk of an unintended consequence: creating a climate of fear and suspicion that could damage our efforts to reinforce trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.
Previously undocumented immigrants, or children of undocumented parents, made passionate appeals to lawmakers to abandon the legislation, some with deeply personal stories. One woman told about how her mother was raped while crossing the Mexican border, yet never reported the crime for fear of deportation. Another told of the fear her mother confronted every day as she got in the car to drive her kids to school or to daycare, afraid that just one small traffic offense could end up separating her family. And countless others told of a childhood spent living in the shadows, as parents believed the only way to stay safe and stay together was to stay quiet.
But if the lawmakers could not be swayed with sympathy, then immigration lawyers tried to sway them with legal consequences, explaining that passing this bill would mean defying the Constitution.
Attorney Lance Curtright said that misinformation about immigration detainers appeared prevalent in lawmakers' discussion about the bill, authored by Senator Charles Perry (R-San Angelo). Firstly, he said, law enforcement agencies are under no obligation to honor ICE detainers. But if they do, they may be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez made waves last month after saying she would only honor ICE detainers if the inmates were charged with capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling; otherwise, ICE would need an arrest warrant or court order for any other offense. Despite the fact that Curtright says this is absolutely legal Governor Greg Abbott has already rescinded $1.5 million in state grant funds, believing Hernandez's policy poses a grave safety threat for what he seems to think is defiance of federal law.
Curtright explained how this reasoning is flawed: Mainly, because law enforcement can only arrest people for criminal offenses, not immigration ones. "What happens when a county jail detains someone pursuant to an ICE detainer?" Curtright said. "They have seized someone under the Fourth Amendment — and the only time you can do that is when you have probable cause that someone has committed a criminal offense. Immigration proceedings are civil. ...You will be sued for this."
By 4 p.m., Senator Eddie Lucio said 89 people had testified in the public testimony segment. Only three supported the bill.
Strangely, former Harris County sheriff Ron Hickman was among supporters, at times appearing to speak on behalf of Harris County law enforcement despite the fact that he no longer has an official role with any agency.
Hickman mostly explained what Harris County's 287(g) contract with ICE entails, in which nine deputies are trained to assist ICE in placing detainers on anyone suspected of being undocumented, a contract costing the county roughly $500,000 per year. This is all very curious, because during the actual Harris County sheriff's campaign to unseat Hickman last year, Gonzalez called for the termination of this contract for the same reasons he opposes SB4, garnering major support from immigrants. Its future is uncertain in Harris County given Gonzalez has yet to release any specifics on what he plans to do with it.
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But anyway, back to Hickman — who admitted that he hadn't actually read the whole bill, and who happened to accidentally make a point that seems to serve the interests of anyone against this bill rather than in support of it.
Hickman explained that deputies currently trained to work with ICE aren't asking any immigration-status questions until the person is actually in the jail. So Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), who said she voted against the 287(g) contract while she was a Harris County commissioner, wondered why it would ever be necessary for an officer to ask someone intimidating questions about their immigration status while in the field, as the bill would permit.
"It may not be necessary," Hickman responded.
It was a sentiment shared by almost everybody else came after him.