By Sara Haji
ACLU of Texas Public Education Associate
Welcome to the first ACLU of Texas update of the 82nd Legislative Session! You’ll be able to join us here as we navigate the political corridors of the most exciting state in the union. We’ll brief interesting bills on the docket, talk to some ACLU legislative volunteers, post relevant news coverage about the session, and take a look at what’s coming up. Now, more than ever, we want your feedback about the issues that affect you—so be sure to Tweet and Facebook us because our pages will solicit your opinions at least weekly.
For our first “This Week at the Lege” post, let’s take a look at the issue bedeviling the Texas Legislature during its first month: “sanctuary cities.” On Jan. 11, the first day of the session, Gov. Perry declared to lawmakers that abolishing sanctuary cities was an emergency priority. Making an issue an “emergency item,” a designation at Perry’s sole discretion, can highlight the governor’s political priorities—but with a $27 billion budget shortfall, the banning of so-called sanctuary cities and the inevitable cost of local immigration enforcement will do the state no financial favors.
The term “sanctuary city” has no legal meaning (when pressed by reporters, Gov. Perry stopped short of offering a definition), but tends to refer to a municipality that has an established policy preventing local law enforcement officials from cooperating with or enforcing federal immigration laws. The Texas Tribune ran an excellent piece observing that Texas state authorities abide by the same policy of not inquiring about immigration status unless the inquiry follows some criminal activity. The state of Texas, then, is no more a “sanctuary state” than is Houston a “sanctuary city,” but the term continues to be used by politicians looking to attack each other on the campaign trail.
Proposed abolition of sanctuary cities presumably aims to permit and encourage local police to detain or arrest undocumented immigrants even when they’re not suspected in a crime—often inquiring, that is, merely on the assumption (often because of race) that someone is undocumented. If this is what Gov. Perry meant, then he’ll draw serious opposition from many quarters, including from the ACLU of Texas. Like Arizona’s law, a ban on sanctuary cities would limit the efficacy of local law enforcement by discouraging undocumented or mixed-status households from cooperating with police as crime witnesses or sources of intelligence for fear of deportation. Police officials in Austin, Houston, El Paso and Dallas have already said that enforcing immigration laws can undermine public safety because such policies reduce public participation in reporting crimes.
Local immigration enforcement would also divert public resources from public safety efforts by requiring local law enforcement screen, transport and hold individuals suspected of immigration violations. Major cities in Texas already report officer shortages and local enforcement would only make matters worse. At a time when state services are being scrubbed, the financial burden of enforcing federal immigration policy is too great, especially in cities already in need of more local police.
In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to follow what the legislature chooses to do regarding sanctuary cities. Until then, tell us what you think and know about upcoming immigration legislation here or on our Facebook page—and check back in soon for another update.