Wall Street Journal
By Dan Frosch
February 8, 2017
Cities refusing to help enforce U.S. immigration law are already under pressure from the Trump administration, which has threatened to pull federal funding. Now, some could lose state money as well.
A Texas bill that would require local municipalities to comply with federal immigration authorities cleared a major hurdle late Tuesday night when it passed an initial Senate vote on party lines.
The GOP-proposed legislation, which passed 20-11, seeks to prevent local jurisdictions from refusing to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. Such jurisdictions are known as sanctuary cities.
Under the bill, cities and police departments that deny federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants could lose state funding, and public officials could face criminal misdemeanor charges under some circumstances.
Judges fired tough questions at the Justice Department lawyer defending the immigration order as well as at the attorney for two states seeking to strike it down.
Other states are weighing similar legislation, part of an ongoing effort by newly emboldened state Republican lawmakers to take a tougher tact on illegal immigration.
Comparable bills are being considered, or are expected to be introduced, in roughly a dozen states, including in GOP-controlled legislatures in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.
Texas’s proposal has moved especially fast, as Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has made the issue a priority and threatened in recent weeks to strip state funding from sanctuary cities.
State Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock who sponsored the bill, said the legislation is intended to keep undocumented immigrants who committed crimes behind bars.
“What’s at stake here is the rule of law,” Mr. Perry said Tuesday during a hearing on the legislation. “This bill ensures… that our laws are applied without prejudice and equally, no matter who is in the elected capacity.”
The proposal faces opposition from Democrats and immigrant rights groups, who argue it would burden local law enforcement and deter undocumented immigrants from cooperating with the police if they are crime victims or witnesses.
State Senator Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston, said the bill would send a wave of fear through Texas’s immigrant community.
“You can imagine going from a broken taillight, to a broken family to broken faith in our system,” she said.
The Texas legislation has picked up steam in recent weeks, as Mr. Abbott has gotten into a showdown with the Democratic sheriff of Travis County, which includes most of Austin, over the issue.
Earlier this month, Mr. Abbott cut off $1.8 million in state grants to Travis County after Sheriff Sally Hernandez ordered her department to stop detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal authorities.
At least 18 states considered bills to block sanctuary policies in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But only Georgia successfully passed legislation.
Debate over the issue has risen to the fore in recent weeks, after President Donald Trump signed executive orders that would strip federal grants from cities that shield undocumented immigrants in defiance of the federal government.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican-led state senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that would bar sanctuary cities from receiving state grants. Philadelphia stands to lose the most, having received $790 million last fiscal year, a city spokeswoman said.
If the bill clears the GOP-controlled House, it could face a veto from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has concerns about the impact on citizens and the bill’s legality, according to a spokesman.
The Republican-led Virginia Senate voted 21-19 on Monday to hold sanctuary cities liable for any injury caused by an undocumented immigrant. It isn’t clear that any city in Virginia considers itself a sanctuary city, or openly refuses to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
The Virginia House, also controlled by the GOP, is expected to approve the bill, but Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is likely to veto it; he blocked similar legislation last year.
Ohio Republicans unveiled this week a proposed bill to ban “sanctuary jurisdictions” and hold elected officials liable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities.
The Texas proposal would also mean civil and criminal penalties for agencies and public officials that fail to comply with the bill’s requirements. Local agencies could be liable for damages stemming from felonies committed by undocumented immigrants who were released by local law enforcement despite requests by U.S. immigration authorities to hold them.
Officials who head agencies in violation of the legislation could face a misdemeanor charge.
The bill would also would make any municipality that refuses to abide by the legislation ineligible for state grants—bolstering Mr. Abbott’s move against Travis County last week.
It is uncertain how much of a financial impact the bill would have, though.
In Travis County, the $1.8 million in grants that Mr. Abbott stripped were for a special court for veterans and various victim outreach programs. But according to local officials, the money represents less than 1% of the county’s annual $1 billion budget.
According to the Texas Association of Counties, the budgets of most major Texas cities include a similarly tiny percentage of state funds.
As with Virginia, it is unclear how many Texas entities would be immediately impacted. According to the Texas Sheriffs’ Association, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office is the only sheriff’s department to refuse to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities.
The legislation cleared an initial Senate committee last week after 16 hours of public debate. The bill is expected to get a final Senate vote on Wednesday before heading to the GOP-controlled House.
Mr. Abbott praised Tuesday night’s vote, saying the bill “helps ensure that Sheriffs and officials across Texas comply with federal immigration laws.”
Following the vote, state Democratic Party spokesman Manny Garcia said that Texas Republicans had ignored “the voices of Texans from all walks of life who fear the devastation S.B.4 would cause.”
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