Along the way, lawmakers cried, fought and traded horses on the Texas House floor, and the bill was amended to be more in line with the goals of hard-line conservatives.
Calling it the defining showdown of this legislative session for their constituents and wearing black in protest, outnumbered Democrats had lined up scores of amendments and planned to fight Senate Bill 4 late into the night.
But almost all of their amendments were defeated, and tea party-aligned Republicans countered by introducing measures that would make the bill stricter, restoring some elements that were stripped out by a House committee after being approved by the Senate.
One by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, prohibits local law enforcement agencies from discouraging their officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people who have been detained, a broad category including routine traffic stops. The bill previously limited that provision to cases in which the person has already been arrested.
Schaefer’s amendment, approved in an 81-64 vote, drew intense criticism from Democrats, who say it will lead to racial discrimination against Latinos.
They bargained for more than four hours over a deal that never materialized to cut off debate early and abandon dozens of their planned amendments in exchange for the House forgoing some of the more conservative proposals, like Schaefer’s.
The Senate has already approved a version of the bill, which was authored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and was listed by Gov. Greg Abbott as one of his “emergency items” for this legislative session.
The bill would impose stiff financial penalties on jurisdictions deemed to be sanctuary cities and allow local officials to be charged with a crime for implementing sanctuary policies. It targets police agencies that discourage their officers from inquiring about subjects’ immigration status in certain circumstances and county jails that decline to honor federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to extend the detention of inmates suspected of being unauthorized immigrants.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has become a flashpoint in the debate over sanctuary cities after she adopted a policy in January limiting the county’s cooperation with those so-called detainer requests, which are meant to give immigration officers time to take inmates into federal custody for possible deportation proceedings.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, began Wednesday’s debate with a call for civility and decorum during what promised to be an emotional day. It took about two hours for decorum to fall apart during an exchange between Dallas Reps. Jason Villalba, a Republican backing the bill, and Rafael Anchia, a Democrat leading the opposition.
After Anchia pressed Villalba on crime rates among immigrant communities and other statistics, the Democrat suggested his GOP colleagues were pursuing the bill because of emotion and prejudice, not a real policy need.
“Oh my gosh, you don’t act based on data? You act on emotion?” Anchia, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said sarcastically. “And hate is a pretty good emotion, isn’t it?”
Villalba responded by noting previous episodes in which Anchia has said GOP-driven legislation on immigration is fueled by racism.
“You have stood on the front mic and impugned the good representatives, the men and women of this body, about how you feel they’re racist,” he said.
After the dust cleared, Anchia, who was proposing a symbolic amendment that would gut the bill, said, “What is this about? It’s not about ICE detainers. It’s not really about crime data. It’s really about the emotions that Jason spoke to and it’s whether we’re going to place those emotions in statute today.”
The amendment was defeated in a 90-52 vote.
Almost every amendment and procedural maneuver proposed by Democrats was defeated by a similar tally. A rare exception was an amendment by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, that got the blessing of Senate Bill 4’s House sponsor, Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, and was approved overwhelmingly.
The amendment changes the process by which a city or county can be deemed a sanctuary city under the law, leading to financial penalties and the potential removal from office of local officials who implemented the sanctuary policy. Previously, the bill charged the Texas attorney general’s office with deciding which jurisdictions had run afoul of the law. Lucio’s amendment requires the attorney general to get court approval before green-lighting sanctions against a sanctuary city.
Earlier in the day, Democrats made impassioned pleas to their GOP colleagues to abandon the legislation, including Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, who came to the U.S. illegally before obtaining citizenship and running for office.
“I know firsthand the impact that (Senate Bill 4) will have on many families … mothers that will be afraid to go to the grocery store,” she said. “I know how this bill will punish immigrants and push them into the shadows.”
Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, who is on a four-day fast to protest the bill, read profane social media messages she has received since beginning her fast.
“This is the sort of hate that our Latino community is already hearing,” Neave said. “Look into your hearts to realize the impact that this is going to have.”
Geren, however, said the bill wasn’t discriminatory because it targeted criminals, not members of a particular racial or ethnic group.
“This bill has no effect on illegal immigrants if they have not committed a crime or hanging out with someone who has,” he said.