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House & Senate Divided over Anti-Immigration Legislation

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Photo by Jason Cato
Austin rally against Secure Communities, immigrant detention centers

House and Senate Republicans are at a stalemate again over how to proceed with their politically-charged immigration legislation to combat “sanctuary cities.”

Back in May, Republican Senator Tommy Williams adopted an amendment from Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, to gut the sanctuary city bill because his homeland security bill had been left languishing for weeks in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee. After a few days, Williams bill was kicked out of committee and the sanctuary city bill was revived. But that was eons ago – the regular 82nd legislative session back in May.

It’s June and Republican legislators are trying to pass the controversial legislation once again during the special session. And it looks like the Senate and House are at loggerheads again. On Monday, the House State Affairs committee heard both the Senate and House versions of the immigration legislation. Williams SB 9, incorporates the prohibition of “sanctuary cities” language from the regular session with a mandate that Texas use the federal program Secure Communities which places federal agents in county and city jails to check for citizenship. (Texas already uses Secure Communities in every county right now.) SB 9 also makes it law that DPS clerks check for citizenship status before granting a driver’s license.

The House version, HB 9 by Republican Burt Solomons, R-Carrolton, doesn’t include any language about secure communities or the DPS license provisions. It does include the sanctuary city language, which allows police officers to check for citizenship status. If any local government doesn’t follow the law they can lose their state funding. And the bill authorizes any citizen to sue law enforcement or a local government agency that doesn’t adhere to the sanctuary city law.

As in previous hearings, people lined up outside the hearing room door to testify against the legislation. Witnesses testifying against the two bills included religious clergy, landowners, local governments and police chiefs from across the state. Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez said the bill would result in lawsuits, jeopardize public safety and be an unfunded mandate because she would be forced to train her officers to act as immigration officers. “The two day training will cost $467,000,” she said. “The county is $33 million short…the budget is stressed and we are overcrowded in the jail.”

Valdez said she’d be forced to release people from the overcrowded jail to make room for the increase in undocumented people. “We need to have room in our jails for people we are afraid of not people who we are upset with,” she said.

Other witnesses warned that racial profiling would be the outcome if the legislation is written into law.

A handful of attendees testified in support of the legislation. Stan Smith, President of the East Gulf Conservative Assembly, said he supported both SB 9 and HB 9, saying that “when a person or a group comes into this country bypassing the lawful and legal procedures to get into that country…then that is a racist attitude.”

But Republicans also turned out to testify against the two bills highlighting a growing divide within the Republican Party over the anti-immigrant legislation. Norman Adams, co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy and a GOP activist said the only reason Republicans wanted to pass the bill was “to please Governor Perry.”

Adams said he and fellow GOP supporter Dr. Steve Hotze are doing their best to discourage Texas’ Republicans from passing Arizona-style legislation. “Solomons worked his rear off on this bill,” he said, referring to HB 9. “But it’s still bad.”

Another Republican William Fowler, a pastor, said that he opposes the bills as a pastor, as a taxpayer, and as the husband of a former immigrant’s daughter. Fowler said he worried that his daughter, wife, or father-in-law might be arrested and taken to jail because of the color of their skin.

Passage of the legislation would hurt Republicans in the next election, said Mark Gonzalez, who worked in John McCain’s presidential campaign. He called the legislation “a fiasco for the Latino vote in the Republican party.” Gonzalez warned the committee that Hispanics are increasingly politically active, and that there will be repercussions during the next election for those who support the bills.

As Texans testified against the legislation, civil justice and immigration-rights advocates gathered outside the Capitol to protest against the expansion of immigrant detention centers and the federal Secure Communities program. SB 9 would expand the program into city jails. The group started at the Capitol and marched to the Travis County jail to protest its use of the Secure Communities program.

The federal program has been criticized for largely deporting immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes. Three states recently pulled out of the Secure Communities program because of fears that it was jeopardizing public safety by damaging the trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities. “It’s reached the tipping point, so many states are opting out of this program,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership an organizer of the rally.

The group also demanded a halt to the construction of the Karnes County immigrant detention center, a 600-bed prison to be operated by the private prison corporation the GEO Group, which has been mired in controversy.  “Obama says the focus is on serious offenders but they are still building detention centers for people seeking political asylum or immigrants who have committed minor crimes,” said Libal.

After 10 long hours of testimony, Rep. Byron Cook chair of the State Affairs committee left the two bills pending early Tuesday morning without a vote. Immigrants rights advocates are hoping the two chambers will be stuck at an impasse and the whole thing will implode. Time is running out for the special session. We’ll find out soon enough.

 

 — Texas Observer Intern Hannah Carney contributed to this report

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.