Why Texas police are showing support for sanctuary cities

Texas police are fighting legislative efforts to punish sanctuary cities, arguing that they would reverse progress local law enforcement has made to engage their minority residents and protect communities.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Protesters take part in a February 'No Ban, No Wall' rally to support the rights of immigrants and oppose a border wall and support sanctuary cities in El Paso, Texas.

Opponents of a Texas bill that would strip funding from so-called sanctuary cities have gained support from an unlikely source: local sheriffs.

Some 600 people, including law enforcement officials from around the state, signed up to testify before the Texas House Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday against a proposed law that would punish Texas communities that refuse to hold undocumented immigrants for federal agents.

Opponents of sanctuary laws say they subvert the efforts of federal officials and compromise the safety of US citizens. Supporters say they make communities safer by fostering better relationships between police and those on the fringes who might fear reporting a crime as a victim or stepping forward as a witness because of their undocumented status.

And even in conservative Texas, where illegal immigration and the state’s proximity to Mexico ushers in concerns for many, local law enforcement is stepping up to vouch for sanctuary city protections. Their pleas echo arguments put forth elsewhere: that delegating federal immigration law to local police not only spreads fear and seals lips in minority communities, but also taxes local authorities with a job they weren't meant to do.

“It’s a clear indication that local law enforcement believes that entanglement between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement endangers public safety," says Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "They do not want to be in the business of working in this coordinated, integrated manner with federal immigration enforcement."

She adds, "I think their role at these hearings should have an important impact."

"Sanctuary cities" have no single legal definition. Typically, such communities refuse to hold undocumented immigrants accused of nonviolent crimes until federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can arrive and take them into custody.

Texas’s bill, Senate Bill 4, would bar localities from crafting policies to prohibit local law enforcement acting as enforcers of federal immigration law. Local authorities who refuse to cooperate with federal officials could see criminal charges, and the state would have the ability to not only withhold funding for the localities, but also levy financial penalties against them.

State legislators introduced the bill just after the November election, taking a cue from President Trump’s campaign trail promises. As part of his tough-on-immigration agenda, Mr. Trump vowed to tackle sanctuary cities, and he signed an executive order just days after taking office that threatens to pull federal funding from cities that fail to report undocumented immigrants to ICE.

Across the United States, more than 200 communities have sanctuary policies. Texas has about 15 sanctuary cities, including Austin, Houston, and Dallas, as well as Laredo, which sits on the Texas-Mexico border. Other border cities, including El Paso and Brownsville, say they do not have sanctuary city protections and work in tandem with ICE. 

Opponents of sanctuary cities say they disrupt the relationship between the local and federal departments while creating different standards for applying the law. These critics, who are predominantly conservative, also worry that releasing minor criminals frees them to commit more heinous acts, thereby posing a threat to public safety.

Supporters of sanctuary policies argue that local police are not equipped to enforce federal immigration laws. Some charge that partnerships between local law enforcement and ICE have resulted in racial profiling on the part of police officers, spurring lawsuits against local departments.

In an era where immigration policy debates draw on questions of American values, police argue that the issue is not only one of moral obligation, but of practicality.

Under threat of the potential law, undocumented immigrants are “not wanting to talk to us, they're not wanting to open the door out of fear that something's going to happen to them," Shelley Knight of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday said when the bill appeared before the House, The Dallas Morning News reported. "It's causing the trust in our community to deteriorate."

Texas officials are not alone. Several mayors and local law enforcement have said they will refuse to comply with Trump's executive order cracking down on sanctuary cities, and experts have questioned its legal footing.

In Texas, the proposed legislation has already cleared the state Senate. On Wednesday, it was debated in the House with slight changes: police would only be able to inquire about someone’s immigration status if they were arrested, not just detained.

Still, Democratic legislators and law enforcement officials say the changes aren’t enough.

If passed, the Texas bill could face legal challenges in addition to public opposition. They're different from potential challenges to Trump's executive order, which include a possible violation of the 10th Amendment, the measure that allows states to craft their own laws.

“It creates the same freedom to sort of interrogate people about their immigration” as other challenged laws, Fatma Marouf, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Texas A&M University School of Law, tells the Monitor.

Officers receive only "a minimal training in immigration law," she says. "It tends to be a complex and dynamic thing.”

And that is exactly what has many Texas officials worried. Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, whose jurisdiction includes Austin, reversed the work of her predecessor in February, saying local officials would no longer jail detainees sought by ICE.

“The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement," she said in a video announcement released on Jan. 20, the day Trump was inaugurated. "Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE, or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers."

She continued, “We cannot afford to make our community less safe by driving people into the shadows.”

While those in support of the legislation have argued that offenders could resort to more violent crimes if released, advocates say there’s no data to show that. And some research has shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than US citizens. 

"There’s always a possibility” that undocumented immigrants will take up more violent paths, Professor Marouf notes, but it’s not particularly likely. Additionally, local law enforcement isn’t equipped to function as both a local and federal agency, she says, as local officers already have their hands full enforcing state and municipal laws.

“The time that they take away from that would probably be time pursuing pretty minimal [immigration] offenses,” she adds.

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