AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The Republican-dominated Texas House of Representative approved on Thursday a bill to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” over criticism from Democrats that the measure could lead to unconstitutional racial profiling.
The bill comes as Republican U.S. President Donald Trump has made combating illegal immigration a priority. Texas, which has an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants and the longest border with Mexico of any U.S. state, has been at the forefront of the immigration debate.
Texas’ Republican leaders have embraced Trump’s calls to punish localities they believe are shielding immigrants in the country illegally.
Any anti-sanctuary city measure may face a tough road after a federal judge this week blocked Trump’s executive order seeking to withhold funds from local authorities that do not use their resources to advance federal immigration laws.
On a party line vote after about 16 hours of emotional debate, the Texas House approved the bill that would punish local authorities who do not abide by requests to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Police who do not cooperate with immigration authorities could be subject to fines and prosecution for a Class A misdemeanor, which can bring up to a year imprisonment.
The bill also allows police to ask people about their immigration status during a lawful detention, even for minor infractions like jay-walking.
The bill will have to be reconciled with another bill approved by the Texas Senate. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has said he would sign such a measure into law.
“This bill has no effect on illegal immigrants if they have not committed a crime or are hanging out with someone who has,” bill sponsor Republican Charlie Geren told the House.
Under questioning, Geren told lawmakers there are no local authorities in Texas at present that he would consider a “sanctuary city.”
Rene Oliveira, a Democratic representative from the border city of Brownsville, said the bill has sent a chill through immigrant communities worried that even people in the United States legally can be picked up by police for minor infractions and subject to a process aimed at deportation.
As the Texas House debated the measure, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who runs one of the nation’s largest police forces, criticized the bill.
“Violent crime is on rise across our Nation & some would rather men & women in blue go after cooks & nannies, instead of hardened criminals,” he wrote on Twitter.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Dan Grebler