Police wore riot gear outside the Texas Capitol as armed "White Lives Matter Too" demonstrators clashed with counter-protesters.

Democrats Push to Limit Police Collaboration With Immigration Agents in Texas

SB 997 is likely an example of how House Democrats will attempt to dilute the so-called sanctuary cities ban before it can reach the governor's desk.


Sylvia Garcia
State Senator Sylvia Garcia introduced Senate Bill 997 at a press conference on Wednesday, February 22, 2017.  Lyanne A. Guarecuco

A bill that would limit police officers’ ability to collaborate with federal immigration authorities may be a preview of how Texas Democrats plan to push back against increased cooperation in deportations by the state and federal government.

Co-authored by all 11 Democrats in the Senate, Senate Bill 997 would prevent local and state police from enforcing federal immigration law in places of worship, hospitals, public schools and courthouses in Texas.

“These places are supposed to be safe for everyone, places that we all recognize are critical in our society,” Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia said at a Capitol press conference Wednesday, a day after she filed the bill.

The proposal would put Texas cops and deputies in line with a 2011 policy that directs Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to “generally avoid” sensitive locations. The federal policy could change under the Trump administration.

SB 997, though, would go further by adding protections to courthouses, a move supporters like El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar say is important.

Escobar on Wednesday cited an “alarming” February 9 arrest in El Paso of an undocumented woman by federal immigration officials. Irvin Gonzalez, a transgender woman seeking a protective order against her boyfriend, was apprehended immediately after a hearing by two ICE agents.

“They took her into custody in a place — in a courtroom — where people who are at the most vulnerable point in their lives, where they are already very afraid of what is about to happen to them and what has happened to them, where they go to seek support and assistance,” Escobar said.

The bill follows a tumultuous few weeks that included immigration raids, protests and heated debate at the Texas Capitol.

protesters, capitol
Protesters rally on the Capitol steps to stop the Anti-Sanctuary Cities bill.  Gus Bova

The hyper-conservative Senate bowled over the chamber’s 11 Democrats on its way to advancing SB 4, the so-called sanctuary cities ban that would prevent police and sheriff departments from setting policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials and cut funding for violators.

Despite more than 1,000 people registering opposition to the bill during a heated 16-hour Senate committee hearing, the measure was approved by the committee and full Senate along party lines.

Measures similar to SB 997, along with failed amendments such as adding protections for federally qualified health care facilities or exempting campus police departments, will likely be part of House Democrats’ attempt to dilute SB 4 before it reaches Governor Greg Abbott’s desk.

“We just want to make sure that no matter what happens [with SB 4 and the Trump administration] that these four institutions are protected, so that people can get the services that they need,” Garcia said.

The debate over one of those institutions, public colleges and universities, could lead to a showdown with Abbott. In December, Abbott tweeted, “Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities.” He also vowed to “cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status.”

Abbott, who last month declared banning “sanctuary cities” one of his four legislative emergency items, previously threatened to withdraw grants from the governor’s office to Travis County if newly elected Sheriff Sally Hernandez implemented a policy to limit the department’s cooperation with ICE. He has since withheld $1.5 million in grants from Travis County over the policy.

SB 4 would likely expand Texas police departments’ cooperation with ICE agents. Currently, the most widely used voluntary agreement between local police and ICE is the 287(g) program, named after the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the feds to oversee and train local law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of people they encounter and detain those who are undocumented.

On Tuesday, the largest county in the state, Harris, backed out of its agreement with ICE under the 287(g) program. The only jurisdictions in the state that maintain such agreements now are Lubbock and Jackson counties and the Carrollton Police Department. Fewer than three dozen jurisdictions throughout the country still operate under 287(g), about half as many as during President Obama’s first term.