USA First Look

Austin caught in state crosshairs over 'sanctuary city' status

After a marathon 16-hour hearing, a Texas Senate Committee has cleared the way for a vote on a bill that would stop vital federal funding to cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Texas has moved one step closer to signing a bill that would withhold state funds from cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities charged with enforcing President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

During a heated 16-hour Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, which was interrupted as protesters jeered at Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who pushed the legislation, the committee voted 7-2 along party lines to approve the bill, clearing the way for the Lone Star State’s Republican-controlled Senate to vote on it next week.

The bill, which was authored by state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican, would punish the governments of local cities that don’t comply with requests from federal immigration enforcement officers to hand over immigrants already in custody for possible deportation.

The Texas vote adds a new dimension to a dilemma faced by many of the more than 300 so-called sanctuary cities who employ similar policies to obstruct federal immigration authorities to prevent deportations: bow to Mr. Trump’s immigration orders, or hold what they see as the moral high ground and lose vital funding. The Trump administration has vowed to punish municipalities that defy his orders with the withdrawal of federal funds, but this is the first time a city has faced such sanctions at the state level.

The Texas committee vote came at the end of a week in which Governor Abbott dialed up the pressure on state lawmakers to act on the issue, which he called an “emergency,” as he called for extraordinary powers to remove elected officials who refuse to comply with the federal mandate. Abbott also fired a fiscal warning shot on Wednesday, cutting off $1.5 million in funding to Austin’s Sheriff Sally Hernandez, an elected Democrat in the state’s most liberal city.

Sheriff Hernandez said her jails would only hold immigrants for murder, aggravated sexual assault, and human trafficking cases, which Abbott declared a threat to public safety, warning that more funds could be withheld. Those funds were earmarked for services including family violence education and a special court for veterans.

Other communities like Miami-Dade County, which had been a self-declared sanctuary city for the last four years, counted the cost of losing an estimated $355 million in federal grants too high. The county has ordered its jails to hold undocumented immigrants indefinitely while federal authorities prepare deportation proceedings.

Back in Texas, Senator Perry said the proposed Texas bill was simply about enforcing the law.

"This is not a deportation bill, this is a rule of law bill," Perry said. "We have almost a culture of contempt for federal immigration law."

But critics echoed a common argument against such measures, saying they would drive a wedge of mistrust between police and immigrant communities that would make it harder for law enforcement to do their jobs, especially by forcing crime victims and witnesses underground. Perry said the bill excludes those groups from being subject to immigration inquiries.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, one of the two Democrats State Affairs Committee, said he objected to the bill on "moral" grounds.

"(This) undermines trust between police and immigrant communities. We risk further endangering women and children who fall prey to violence and extortion such as human trafficking," Senator Lucio said.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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