Texas lawmakers vote on 'sanctuary cities' bill

AUSTIN - Members of the Texas House of Representatives took up Senate Bill 4 (SB4) Wednesday which would require all law enforcement to honor ICE detainers.

Those detainers are voluntary requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold someone in jail while their immigration status is investigated. 

Before the House met, opponents of SB4 held a rally calling on lawmakers to vote against the bill. The group of lawmakers, business leaders, clergy and Texans wore black in a show of solidarity and chanted "I am somebody and I deserve full equality".

Among the group was a young girl who spoke to the crowd. 

"SB4 can destroy our lives," the child said. "I just ask you to please think of us."

The fear she feels could be seen on the faces of people in the crowd.

"Sometimes I get nervous when I see a police car up the street. I start to worry when my parents are five minutes late from picking  me up from school," she said. 

Her concerns were echoed by business leaders, religious leaders and even law enforcement officers who say SB4 will hurt their relationship with the immigrant community, leading to less cooperation and fewer reports of crime.

"Simply put, we believe this bill undermines public safety," said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. "We should all be concerned about that. If passed, Senate Bill 4 undermines our expertise as law enforcement officials and our ability to respond to the needs of our communities."

Gonzalez leads the largest sheriff's office in Texas. 

"SB 4 would coerce local law enforcement to dedicate often scarce resources such as jail space, on duty time of officers and local tax dollars to a job that is supposed to be done by the federal government," he added. 

For many of the lawmakers, SB4 is personal. Especially for Ana Hernandez (D-Houston).

"Many of our legislators are, have parents that are immigrants," she said. "But I am one of the few who is an immigrant. And a former undocumented immigrant. So for me this is very personal. It's an attack on me, on my family, on my community."

Inside the Capitol, students staged a sit-in on the rotunda floor. They sat with their laptops and books open, studying to show they're not a threat. And upstairs, as lawmakers walk onto the House floor, they were greeted by children passing out pictures and letters to them, begging them to vote against the bill.

SB4 was the first bill  the House took up. Representative Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), who is carrying the bill in the House, started the debate by laying out the bill. 

"It requires local law enforcement to comply with immigration detainer requests," Geren explained. "The bill does not target or discriminate illegal immigrants, in fact this bill has no effect on illegal immigrants if they have not committed a crime or are hanging out with one that has."

Unlike the Senate approved version of SB4, Geren's version only allows law enforcement officers to ask about someone's immigration status if the person is arrested.

"The bottom line is, if you don't do something to get arrested or hang out with somebody that does and taken to jail, this bill's not going to effect you," Geren added. 

But House Democrats don't see it that way.

"First off, is there even a legal definition for a sanctuary city," Representative Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) asked Geren. 

"No sir there is not," Geren replied.

"Can you name one sanctuary city in Texas," Oliveira continued.

"At this time, I cannot," Geren said.

Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) filed the first amendment to SB4. Anchia knew the amendment wouldn't pass, but said it would allow members time to talk about how SB4 is making them feel. 

"Over 99 percent of ICE detainers were complied with in this state," Anchia said, "so we know it's not about that."

Anchia said the bill is discriminatory and based on false narratives that criminals who don't have documentation to be in Texas are not deported. And added rhetoric from President Donald Trump furthers that narrative.

"We are called rapists. We are called criminals. It is suggested that  Latinos don't send, Latino countries don't send their best here. Well I'm the son of immigrants and I love this country. And when my mother came here, Mexico sent her best ," Anchia said. 

"If you've succeeded in anything, members, you've succeeded in terrifying an entire community. Kids aren't going to school, victims of domestic abuse are not reporting their crimes," Anchia said. 

Representative Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) also spoke against the bill. 

"Aside from the fact that we take this bill personal, that we feel that there is a racist undertone to this bill, this bill is flawed," Lucio said. "This bill is, I would caution all of the colleagues that are heckling me, that we are very emotionally charged. Do not mess with us today, I don't want to be heckled, I don't want to be threatened. I'm cautioning you. I'm a proud Latino and I will not stand for it."

Not only did Latino lawmakers express concern about the impacts of SB4 on their community, so did Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston).

"I'm an immigrant," Wu said, holding back tears. "My parents are immigrants. I represent a district filled with immigrants."

Wu said the bill brings up feelings associated with the United State's history of legislation targeting Asian Americans. 

"So members, if we're not patting you on the back today and we don't want to be very friendly, I think you know why," Anchia said. "Cause this feels like a dark day in the house."

After the lawmakers who wanted to speak shared their stories, the House started to vote on amendments. Geren said he would not accept any amendments but would leave everything up to the will of the House. 

He did however vote for an amendment by Representative Lucio. The amendment requires a court to rule on whether an elected official or municipality is in violation with SB4 instead of leaving the decision solely to the Attorney General. The amendment passed overwhelmingly.

An amendment by Representative Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) sparked much debate. It would make the House version of the bill the same as the Senate version by allowing law enforcement officers to ask someone about their immigration status if they were detained, which includes being pulled over for traffic violations or stopped for jaywalking. 

For nearly two hours, democrats and republicans tried to strike a deal, but were unable to reach an agreement. 

Numerous amendments to the amendment failed. 

Representative Geren said he would not vote in support of the amendment and would instead stand by the bill that he wrote. Still, the amendment passed with a vote of 81-64.

The debate on SB4 is ongoing. Click here to watch it

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