AUSTIN, Tex. (Reuters) - The Texas House of Representatives late on Monday approved a measure that seeks to crack down on cities that provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
The measure would prohibit local governments from banning law enforcement officers asking about the immigration status of people who are lawfully detained or arrested. Republican Governor Rick Perry designated the measure as one of his emergency priorities for the legislative session.
“It simply prevents cities from telling officers to turn a blind eye to violators of federal law,” said the bill’s author, Republican Burt Solomons.
But House Democrats spoke emotionally during the debate about how the bill could lead to racial profiling.
“It’s the largest anti-Hispanic bill I’ve seen in Texas,” Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer told reporters.
It’s unclear how Texas cities or counties would be affected by the legislation. Solomons has said he has not come across any that acknowledge having sanctuary policies.
Still, the measure, like other immigration proposals around the country, is highly polarizing. Opponents such as immigrant advocacy groups, business groups and law enforcement officials say that it could be a burden on local governments.
“At a time with dwindling resources, we’re very concerned with placing the job of the federal government in the hands of state and local” entities, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told a House committee in March. “Quite frankly, I’m not sure what we’re trying to fix.”
When asked last week about the fact that some police chiefs oppose the measure, Perry pointed to last Election Day.
“My response is that I hope they were paying attention on the second day of November, 2010, when the people of the state of Texas said pretty clearly that they wanted to have a sanctuary city prohibition in our statute,” Perry told reporters, according to the Texas Tribune. “I talked a lot about it during the campaign.”
For Perry, getting the sanctuary city bill passed would allow him to show those who voted for him, including Tea Party supporters, that he made progress on the immigration issue. But he has to tread carefully to avoid alienating Hispanic voters.
In the 2008 presidential election, Hispanic voters turned out by a 2-to-1 margin for Barack Obama over Republican candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona. And in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race, 61 percent of Latino voters chose Bill White, the Democrat, over Perry, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“The Republican policymakers have to keep one eye on the constituency that came out and voted in the last election while at the same time looking over their shoulder at the fastest-growing constituency in the state,” said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
This may be why a number of other immigration bills proposed in the Texas Legislature this session have not gained traction, including one that would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.
Under the sanctuary city measure, cities and other local entities could not prohibit law enforcement officers from assisting federal immigration officials. Local governments that fail to comply would forfeit state grant funds. The measure, which passed at nearly midnight Monday after the Republican majority forced an end to debate, would need a final vote in the House before it could go to the Senate.
The bill’s passage came the night before President Barack Obama’s visit to Texas, where he is expected to talk about immigration reform in El Paso and raise money in Austin for the Democratic National Committee.
Texas is one of more than a dozen states where Republicans have sought to tighten immigration laws a year after Arizona passed a high-profile crackdown on illegal immigration. Texas’s proposal would not go as far as the legislation passed in Arizona, which required police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected was in the country illegally. That provision of the Arizona law was blocked by a judge.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune