How Texas Could Be the First State to Ban Sanctuary Cities Under Trump

Bill being rushed through the legislature would require police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities

Immigrants in Texas gather for the February 16th A Day Without Immigrants action outside the state capitol building. A new bill being considered by the state legislature would impact Texas' immigrant community. Credit: Eric Gay/AP

On Wednesday, in the middle of her spring break, 10-year-old Lizbeth huddles with three friends in a group hug on the steps of the Texas Capitol. Though they've slept just a few hours at their slumber party the night before, the children – whose parents are all undocumented – are ready to testify against SB 4, a bill forcing local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

"This law's not only going to affect immigrants, but also us. They forget about the children of immigrants and how our lives will be affected," says Lizbeth, whose parents came to Austin 15 years ago and were too afraid to attend the hearing. (A documented member of Austin's immigrant community has chaperoned them instead.) "We're only kids. We need our parents to be by our side. No one gives us more love than they do. I worry about losing my parents."

To the horror of immigrant communities around Texas, SB 4 is rushing through the legislature with widespread political support and could be the first – and most extreme – anti-sanctuary bill to pass under President Trump. Trump's January executive order, pledging to strip federal funds from sanctuaries, has not yet been enacted, but he has emboldened 25 states to propose similar legislation.

"On a practical level, it is unclear whether and how the federal government will cut funding to sanctuaries, but on a political level the order has certainly given wind to these states' measures," says Faye Hipsman, policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute's U.S. Immigration Program. "The Texas bill is the most high-profile and likely most far-reaching."

Under SB 4, police must enforce immigration laws and honor all Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, or requests to hand over individuals for possible deportation. If a police force refuses to comply, Texas would deprive the local government of all its state funding.

The bill would also allow the state to prosecute police chiefs and sheriffs of sanctuary jurisdictions for a new crime, failure to enforce immigration laws, for which they could spend up to a year in jail. And if police release an inmate with an immigration detainer, the county could be sued for any crime that individual commits over the next decade.

Texas' proposed requirements, on top of ICE's heightened enforcement under Trump, place an unprecedented burden on local law enforcement, says Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas in Austin. "Previously, ICE wasn't issuing detainers on everyone, but now they're doing it across the board," says Gilman, explaining that in the final years of the Obama administration the agency only issued detainers on immigrants who committed serious crimes. "Because the federal government has stopped issuing discretion [in detainers], local jurisdictions have started to do so."

"We're only kids. We need our parents to be by our side." —Lizbeth, age 10

Most notably in Texas, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez declared the area an official sanctuary in February, with fervent approval by Austin's mayor and other local officials. But far-right Gov. Greg Abbott, enraged at Hernandez's defiance, cut all criminal justice funds to the county, to the detriment of social services like family violence victim outreach.

Under SB 4, Abbott could also prosecute Hernandez. Still, she's given no indication she would reverse the policy

"I am following all state and federal laws, and upholding constitutional rights to due process for all in our criminal justice system," she said in a statement about the bill. "Our community is safer when people can report crimes without fear of deportation."

The legislation, which would also allow police to ask individuals' immigration status, could not only threaten self-proclaimed sanctuaries like Travis County, but would also have dramatic impacts statewide on immigrants' confidence in law enforcement. Although SB 4 has a provision preventing cops from asking crime victims their immigration status, ACLU Rio Grande Valley community organizer Maria Cordero says her community doesn't trust it.

"The community is afraid the law will be applied not only at traffic stops but also when victims report crimes. People are going to stop calling the police," says Cordero, adding that some neighbors have already grown more wary of cops since SB 4's proposal. Cordero, whose home in Brownsville is a stone's throw from the border, drove five-and-a-half hours to testify at the House Committee hearing in Austin this week.

"We're resisting but our voices aren't being heard," she says, as she lines up with hundreds of others to oppose the bill.

Texas police, for their part, are split on the legislation: Many have voiced concerns that SB 4 could prevent immigrants from reporting crimes, but the Texas Sheriff's Association maintains firm support.

"We believe in the rule of law, in cooperating with law enforcement agencies," says A.J. Louderback, the association's legislative director. "We don't pick and choose which body of law we're going to honor and work with, and ICE is a law enforcement agency."

But according to Gilman, of the Immigration Law Clinic, requiring police to hand over individuals to ICE is unconstitutional – so a lawsuit against SB 4 is inevitable.

In the meantime, newly awakened activists, old and young, will keep up the grassroots fight.

"I'm not the type of person who likes to be judged," Lizbeth's friend Sergio, 9, says as he enters the Capitol Wednesday to testify. Eyes welling up behind thick glasses, he says, "But I'll speak out for my country ... for my family."