Popular resistance swells as Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans push anti-immigrant legislation.
UPDATE: After a 16-hour hearing and hundreds of people testifying against the so-called sanctuary cities ban, the Senate State Affairs committee passed Senate Bill 4 on to the full Senate. The 7-2 vote fell along party lines.
ORIGINAL REPORT: More than 1,000 people gathered at the Texas Capitol Thursday morning to oppose Senate Bill 4 — the so-called sanctuary cities bill that critics say is anti-immigrant. The line to testify at the Senate Committee on State Affairs was so long that it wrapped around the second-floor rotunda twice by the time the hearing began at 8:30 a.m.
“I came to oppose this bill for my family and all immigrants who are suffering right now,” said Carla Hernandez, an undocumented Austin mother originally from Mexico. “They can’t keep separating our families.”
Senate Bill 4 would ban sanctuary cities in Texas — though the bill doesn’t define what constitutes a “sanctuary city” — by cutting state grant funding from localities that don’t fully cooperate with immigration detainers, requests from federal immigration authorities to keep undocumented immigrants in jail so they may be deported. The bill would also increase collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents, which critics — including the police chiefs of San Antonio and Austin — say will damage trust between local police and the immigrant community.
More than 450 people signed up to testify on the bill as of 11 a.m., said state Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and dozens more continued to register to speak into the afternoon. Nearly all registered opposition to the bill (after 89 public testimonies had been given, only three spoke in support of the proposal). Many called the proposal “racist” or “discriminatory” toward Hispanics.
Several speakers said they worry the proposal would discourage undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes or working with local law enforcement during investigations of violent crimes out of fear of deportation.
The Senate hearing drew supporters of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who formalized a policy last month that would limit the sheriff department’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under Hernandez’s policy, the Sheriff’s office would only assist with ICE’s requests when a suspect is charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking, or if there is a court order or arrest warrant signed by a judge.
Hernandez, who did not speak at the hearing, faced backlash from Governor Greg Abbott, who threatened to remove her from office if she did not change her stance. On Wednesday, Abbott cancelled $1.5 million in grants for Travis County, after making a sanctuary cities ban an emergency item during his State of the State speech on Tuesday.
A lively crowd filled the Senate gallery, bursting out into refrains of “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?” They unfurled banners that read “SB 4: So Bad 4 Democracy” and “Our generation is watching you!” State troopers surrounded the gallery, ready to cover up banners and escort protesters outside. At least five were removed from the gallery in the first few hours of the day-long hearing.
Lawmakers discussed the bill and questioned Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, for almost three hours. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, asked what would happen to the children of parents deported because of SB 4. Perry replied, “This is not a deportation bill, this is a rule of law bill.” He did not explain what would happen to the children in question.
At 10:30 a.m., about 100 activists gathered on the Capitol steps. They held signs in Spanish, English and Vietnamese that read “Immigrant rights are human rights,” “Aquí estamos y nos quedamos (Here we are and here we’ll stay)” and “We are the American children of immigrants.”
A group of activists with United We Dream, an immigrant youth organization, said they brought two busloads of people from Houston for the demonstration. Oscar Hernandez, an undocumented organizer from Puebla, Mexico, yelled and sang into a bullhorn.
“Right now the undocumented are facing not just bills [like SB 4] but also white supremacist culture, which is coming directly from the White House,” Hernandez told the Observer. “But I feel confident in our people and our movement. … We undocumented are the directly affected, and we will keep leading the movement.”
Hernandez energized the crowd as they returned to testify at the senate hearing by chanting: “Up, up with liberation! Down, down with deportation!” and “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!”
Testimony is expected to go late into the night, and a second hearing has been scheduled for Friday. The bill is expected to easily pass out of the Senate State Affairs Committee, which is made up of seven Republicans and two Democrats.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said earlier this week he wants to pass the bill out of the full Senate as early as next week.