Why Texas ban on 'sanctuary cities' divides local law enforcement

Texas's controversial new law raises important questions about whether enforcing a federal law should always trump enforcement of local laws, and whether local officers ultimately will take their orders from their chief – or the president.

Delcia Lopez/The Monitor/AP
McAllen, Texas, police chief Victor Rodriguez, flanked by several police officers from the around the Rio Grande Valley, talk about the new SB4 law during a press conference held on May 11 at the McAllen Convention Center.

From his 844-square mile territory of Texas cordgrass marshes and mesquite prairies, Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback responded to a ban on "sanctuary cities" in his state with a virtual tip of the Stetson.

A number of Texas sheriffs and most major city police chiefs opposed the groundbreaking law signed on Sunday by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. They say it coerces local cops to do federal immigration enforcement and would have a “chilling” effect on the state’s massive immigrant community. Sanctuary cities bar police from cooperating with federal immigration agents without a warrant.

But Mr. Louderback and more than 200 other Texas sheriffs say the new law is fine by them.

The rural sheriff says the state law – which bars the sanctuary cities and is the first in the nation to threaten non-complying officials with jail time and fines – is part of rebuilding a national rule of law that, in his opinion, lagged in the Obama era.

The controversial law, which could be a model for other GOP-led states mulling similar action, is already headed to court. But it raises important questions about whether enforcing a federal law should always trump enforcement of local laws, and whether local officers ultimately will take their orders from their chief – or the president.

“What we’re seeing here is fair-weather federalism from both Democrats and Republicans [on policing], but at the end of the day, constitutionally speaking, state coercion of localities raises different kinds of issues than federal coercion of states,” says Ilya Somin, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, in Alexandria, Va.

It also marks a 180-degree turn for the fiercely independent Lone Star State, which during the Obama administration stood against Washington on principle on issues ranging from labor law to the environment and from voting rights to education.

“The idea that you would threaten law enforcement officers, mayors, and city council people with jail time for not complying with federal regulations, that’s extraordinary in Texas,” says Cal Jillson, an expert in Texas politics at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

The law’s passage is seen as a breakthrough for tea party Republicans eager to advance President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

“Texans’ jealousy of their prerogatives as a state has always been influenced by politics,” writes Henry Brands, a historian at the University of Texas, in Austin, in an email. “In this case, Republicanism has trumped Texanism.”

Testing ground for policing

For people on both sides of the issue, Texas will represent a testing ground for policing in the Trump era.

On the one hand, “To tell a police officer that the law is being broken as a matter of course but then say, ‘We don’t want you to worry about that,’ it sort of grates on who they are and what they do,” says Professor Jillson of Obama administration regulations that called for the release of unauthorized immigrants who hadn't committed felonies.

On the other, police chiefs in Bexas, Travis, and El Paso Counties testified last week that the law would cause unauthorized immigrants to fear contact with police, potentially undermining criminal investigations that need witnesses.

Moreover, given that Texas already detains more unauthorized immigrants for Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) annually than any state, and that studies show immigrants pose less risk to public safety than native-born Americans do, the necessity for the law becomes a question for people like Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“If all a sudden I have a police officer who decides, ‘I’m going to play ICE agent all day and harass day laborers at Home Depot,’ explain to me, when I lose my authority to tell my officers they can’t do that, how does that enhance public safety?” Chief Acevedo said at a press conference last week. “Tell me that with a straight face.”

Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/AP
University Of Texas Student Vanessa Rodriguez speaks during a protest of Texas's new law banning sanctuary cities outside of the Texas Governor's Mansion in Austin May 8. The new law allows police officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they detain, including during routine traffic stops. It is the first law in the nation to threaten jail time for officials who do not comply.

El Cenizo stands defiant

Opposition to the new law was strongest in large cities and border towns. Another factor is that historically and culturally, deep ties bind Texas (originally Tejas) and Mexico.

Lawsuits already have been filed in the law’s first week. The border town of El Cenizo, population 4,000, has joined a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens. In 1999, El Cenizo, which has five volunteer police officers and eight city employees, passed a “safe haven” ordinance that prohibits city employees from asking about a person’s immigration status. It argues that the state of Texas "may not commandeer" local officials to enforce federal law. Mayor Raul Reyes told National Public Radio that he will not rescind the safe haven law. "If they want to throw me in jail, go ahead," he said. "I strongly believe in what we're doing." 

Even the law’s supporters are uncertain of its future in court. “I think it’s going to be a bit of an adventure in a court room somewhere,” says Liz Theiss, founder of the Houston-based Stop the Magnet, which lobbies in Austin for tougher immigration laws. Nevertheless, she adds, “The mood of the country is shifting.”

While the law is likely to pass constitutional muster on its face, “I suspect that SB 4 would increase the risk of civil liberties violations, ethnic and racial profiling, which all presents potential harm both to immigrants and native-born Americans who may look like they are of the same ethnicity as undocumented immigrants,” says George Mason's Professor Somin.

In the meantime, most law-enforcement officers say they will, as always, uphold the law. “While I hate seeing a state law like this come to pass, I have always followed the law and that will not change,” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said.

Louderback says that, at least for him, the new law won’t require significant changes in day-to-day operations, given his county’s high levels of cooperation with ICE. The real shift, he says, is in how state government prioritizes public safety.

“In Texas, we’re still not immigration officers, since we don’t have the authority to engage in immigration violations,” the Edna, Tex.-based sheriff says. “But a city can no longer [tell police that], ‘You will never, ever engage ICE on any matter in law enforcement,’ because that’s [now recognized as] a public safety concern.”

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