Some Republicans are Defending an Imaginary Version of Senate Bill 4

If Republicans wanted a limited, more moderate SB 4, they held their peace when it mattered.


Several girls shout anti-SB 4 chants outside of the House gallery.  Sam DeGrave

Months after passing Senate Bill 4, the most draconian anti-immigrant legislation in recent memory, some Texas Republicans seem to be defending a version of the “sanctuary cities” law that doesn’t exist. In multiple statements, state lawmakers have claimed the measure targets only immigrants who’ve already been arrested. These legislators also completely ignored the most controversial part of the law, the “show me your papers” provision.

Most recently, state Representative Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, condemned the San Marcos City Council for voting to join an ever-growing list of cities and counties suing the state over SB 4, which goes into effect September 1 unless a federal judge halts it.

“Although this law has been vilified in the media, the facts reveal that SB 4 is a reasonable measure to ensure truly violent criminals are kept off our streets,” Isaac said Tuesday. “SB 4 requires law enforcement entities to honor ICE detainers for ‘criminal aliens’ — those who have committed serious crimes while in the United States illegally,”

In fact, SB 4 requires jails to honor all ICE detainers — requests to keep a suspected undocumented immigrant in jail so they can be deported — and makes no distinction between minor and serious crimes.

Isaac defines SB 4 exclusively by its detainer provision, which is a mere 135 words out of the 3,500-word law. Many police chiefs, immigration advocates and Hispanic Texans have objected most stridently to the “show me your papers”  provision, which forces law enforcement leaders to let cops ask about immigration status during any routine detention — for anything from a broken tail light to jaywalking.

Other Republicans have taken a similar tack.

“SB 4 certainly has nothing to do with deportation, as the state does not have the power to deport anyone,” said Senator Konni Burton, a Fort Worth Republican, in a statement August 14. “What SB 4 does do is prohibit racial profiling by police and prohibit police from inquiring into the immigration status of a victim of crime or a witness of crime in almost all circumstances — a first in Texas history.”

In fact, SB 4 will almost certainly increase deportations by making immigration detainers mandatory and forcing greater cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents. The law does contain a provision prohibiting discrimination, but it lacks any enforcement mechanism and the “show me your papers” provision virtually ensures increased racial profiling.

At least three bills in the regular session would have exclusively protected crime victims and witnesses from immigration inquiries, but all died in committee.

On August 9, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s pre-emptive effort to have SB 4 declared constitutional by a federal judge was dismissed. In a press release lamenting the decision, he gave a one-sentence definition of the law he’s tasked with defending: “SB 4 affirms the right and duty of law enforcement agencies throughout Texas to detain individuals pursuant to the … federal detainer program.”

And in May, Governor Greg Abbott used his own family as a shield against criticism of the law.

“As the husband of the first Hispanic first lady in the State of Texas, I want to make sure that neither she nor her family is going to be stopped or detained inappropriately,” Abbott told Univision. “If you are Hispanic … you are not going to be stopped and required to show your papers unless you are suspected of having committed some serious crime.”

Whether Cecilia Abbott gets profiled under SB 4, it’s never been the case that police only stop people suspected of “some serious crime.”

The bulk of SB 4 consists of a broad ban on local officials implementing any policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration agents, and it threatens to jail those who run afoul of its provisions.

There was never a version of SB 4 that limited itself to detainer policy, but some Republicans preferred a more moderate version that was debated in April for 16 hours in the Texas House. That version was upended when tea partier Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, successfully revived the “show me your papers” section.

Around 2 a.m. that night, Houston Democrat Gene Wu, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, made a plea: “All that we want is mercy; all that we asked for in our amendments today, one by one, was mercy.” The bill promptly passed 94-53 with unanimous GOP support.

If Republicans wanted a limited, more moderate SB 4, they held their peace when it mattered.