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After Pushing a Focused Ban on Sanctuary Cities, Texas Governor Signs Much Broader Immigration Bill

After previous assurances from Governor Greg Abbott that he wanted lawmakers to pass a narrowly-focused crackdown on local sheriffs who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials, the bill he signed this week “banning sanctuary cities” is much more far-reaching. Among other things, it will allow police to inquire about immigration status before a person is arrested. Critics argue the provision amounts to a “show me your papers” law similar to the one passed in Arizona back in 2010.

After Texas Republicans held the line on such policies for at least a decade as other GOP-led states moved in this economically damaging direction, it is fair to ask how things spiraled out of control to the point where Abbott felt it necessary to sign such a bill into law.

Back in 2015, Abbott said he had a “clear plan to end sanctuary cities,” though he never articulated what that plan might be.

Meantime, Abbott focused on working to ensure that sheriffs around the state always honor detainer requests made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – an argument bolstered by the fact that newly-elected Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez ran for office on a promise that she would not always cooperate with the feds on immigration issues. It was effective political rhetoric for Hernandez to deploy during a campaign in liberal Austin. Now that she's in office, however, Hernandez is honoring ICE detainers just as sheriffs do throughout Texas.

In fact, the data shows that local law enforcement across this state comply with detainer requests made by ICE at least 99 percent of the time.

For months, Abbott’s rhetoric was focused like a laser on those ICE detainers and making sure no sheriffs were going rogue, so to speak. In his State of the State Address, Abbott declared the issue would be an emergency item in this legislative session, putting it on a fast track.

“Elected officials don't get to pick and choose which laws they obey,” Abbott said. “To protect Texans from deadly danger, we must insist that laws be followed...this is the session we will ban sanctuary cities.”

But after that, Abbott took a lackadaisical approach to the legislative process. The governor and his staff were rarely, if ever, involved in crafting the legislation or shepherding it through the process. The totality of his involvement, it seems, included tweeting about sanctuary cities and making appearances on cable news channels.

Senate Bill 4 was filed in response to Abbott’s demand for a ban on sanctuary cities. As it worked its way through committees in the Senate and House and floor debates in both chambers, the proposal was altered significantly several times.

The Texas Senate passed the bill in a form that would essentially turn local police into immigration officers, allowing them to inquire about legal status prior to arrest. After the bill moved to the Texas House, the sponsor Representative Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, changed it such that a person would have to actually be arrested before immigration status could even be raised as an issue. This policy would have been similar to the 287(g) program used for years in jails around Texas and elsewhere.

Representative Geren brought that proposal to the floor of the House, but after an emotionally and physically draining marathon 16-hour debate that ended at 3am on April 27, the House passed the bill after adding the “show me your papers” language – the language Geren had previously removed.

It was necessary for the Senate to agree to those changes before Senate Bill 4 could be sent to Abbott for his signature. Democratic senators who had been encouraged when the House at first removed the “show me your papers” language were naturally troubled that it had been added back in.

“We don't want walking while brown to become reasonable suspicion,” said Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, as SB 4 was brought back to the Senate floor.

“I think you go much too far, hopefully into unconstitutional grounds,” said Senator José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. “Why are we are passing a bill that gives local law enforcement, even campus police, the ability to act as de facto immigration officers?”

In signing the bill, Abbott argued the law will improve public safety.

“The reason why so many people come to America is because we are the nation of laws,” Abbott said. “Texas is doing its part to keep it that way.”

The law is already being tested in the courts.

Before opponents were able to file a challenge to Senate Bill 4, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office made what some considered a preemptive move by asking a court to find that the law is constitutional.

Whether the law will stand up to court scrutiny is yet to be seen but the politics of this situation are straightforward.

Governor Abbott and other Republican officeholders are operating in an environment in which President Donald Trump successfully ascended to the White House by promising a border and mass deportations. Even though his approval ratings hover around 40 percent, 93 percent of those who voted for him – Republican primary voters – believe he’s doing a great job and would vote for him again.

That fact raises the stakes for any GOP politician who might consider bucking Trump’s core message about immigration, the issue which continues to most inflame the Republican Party’s base.

That’s why Abbott and lawmakers who supported Senate Bill 4 will campaign in 2018 based largely on a message of toughness when it comes to illegal immigration, even if the courts block its implementation and it never takes effect, which is a distinct possibility.