Immigrant Communities Battle New Anti-Sanctuary-City Bills in Red States
Emboldened by President Trump’s executive order withholding federal funds from “sanctuary” jurisdictions, Republican-dominated state legislatures are seeking to deny their own state funds to counties or cities refusing to comply with federal immigration authorities.
Several states, including Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Idaho and Pennsylvania have introduced measures that would require police agencies to hold anyone in custody until US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) can determine if they should be deported, or potentially lose state funding.
Some states are going even farther than that.
In Ohio, state lawmakers introduced a bill that would hold local officials accountable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in the officials’ sanctuary jurisdictions. Legislators in Colorado have introduced legislation that would let victims of particular crimes committed by undocumented immigrants sue the politicians who supported a sanctuary designation. Alaska and Maine are now reportedly considering similar measures to the Colorado proposal.
But the underlying assumptions the bills rely on — that immigrants are inherently criminal — are based on myths. Research has shown that undocumented immigrants do not commit disproportionate amount of crime, and that crime is not generally higher in sanctuary jurisdictions. In fact, researchers who analyzed census data spanning from 1970 to 2010 for 200 randomly-selected metropolitan areas found that, “for murder, robbery, burglary and larceny, as immigration increased, crime decreased, on average, in American metropolitan areas.”
There is no strict, legal definition of a sanctuary jurisdiction, whether at the city, county or state level. The entire states of California, Connecticut, New Mexico and Colorado and hundreds of other jurisdictions at the city and country level label themselves sanctuaries. The term is most often used to describe jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal immigration authorities’ requests to keep suspected undocumented immigrants in jail, even after their release date, so that they can determine whether the person should be deported. These nonbinding requests are known as “detainers.”
Just as Republican-dominated state legislatures are introducing anti-sanctuary-city legislation, dozens of Democratic-leaning states and cities are considering legislation to take steps like setting up legal defense funds for immigrants swept up in ICE raids. Some Democratic governors and mayors are also taking steps to mitigate Trump’s executive orders; for example, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told state agencies to specifically avoid inquiring about the immigration status of individuals they work with or detain.
But with Republicans dominating 25 state legislatures and 33 governorships, state-level anti-immigrant bills have put immigrant rights’ advocates on the defensive. They are doing all they can to hold the line in the face of intensifying threats: ICE swept up more than 680 people in raids last week, representing what many advocates say is a radical shift under President Trump to deport people who were previously considered a lower priority for removal under President Obama.
Texas Republicans Fast Track Senate Bill 4
The Texas Senate passed an anti-sanctuary-city measure this month that would block state funding to cities in which police officials disregard federal immigration detainers. The bill, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), would also allow criminal charges to be brought against city or county officials who do not comply with federal immigration law, and if convicted, face removal from office.
The bill has been a priority for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose public feud with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over her decision not to comply with ICE detainers has been in the spotlight after the governor slashed more than $2 million in funding to Travis County in retribution. The bill also aims to cut off funds to one of the state’s largest sanctuaries — Austin — as well as to Texas colleges that designate themselves sanctuary campuses.
A House version of the measure, House bill 889, has been filed, but neither version of the bill has been referred to a committee in the lower chamber.
Immigrant communities from Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, College Station, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere across the state gave hundreds of testimonies in opposition to the bill during a hearing in the Senate Committee on State Affairs, speaking into the early hours on the morning of February 3. The youth-led immigrant rights’ organization United We Dream (UWD) and other advocacy groups said they delivered more than 3,200 signed petitions in opposition.
“With SB4 being prioritized and sped along so quickly, we definitely feel that some of these conservative politicians are being emboldened by the fact that on the national level, Trump has already laid out executive orders that pretty much lay down the groundwork for any non-US citizen to be criminalized and put into a deportation pipeline,” Austin resident Sheridan Aguirre, who is communications coordinator at UWD and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), told Truthout. “As immigrants who would be directly impacted by this bill, we want to be very clear that this bill should not exist, that this bill is a direct attack on Brown and Black immigrant folks who are part of this state and who have made their lives here for so many years.”
The bill moves into the House on the heels of last week’s ICE raids that swept up more than 680 people across more than 11 states, including a DACA recipient (even though Trump has not taken specific action to dismantle DACA thus far). In Austin, ICE detained between 60-70 people, according to organizers with the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership. The enforcement actions prompted hundreds of protesters to take the streets in response.
“Two years ago, during the last legislative session, [SB4] was called Senate Bill 185 by the same senator, Charles Perry, and he wasn’t able to get it out of the Senate. It only to a hearing and died in committee, and that’s because again, a lot of people showed up to testify against the bill,” said Karla Perez, who is the state-level coordinator for UWD’s UndocuTexas campaign. “Now, two years later, we see Texas Republicans in the Senate emboldened by Donald Trump, and are carrying out his agenda of mass deportation and xenophobia in our state.”
If SB4 or other state-level, anti-sanctuary-cities bills become law, cities and counties that adopt sanctuary policies could be facing a twofold threat from both their state and the Trump administration, as one of the president’s January 25 executive orders would rescind federal grants to sanctuary jurisdictions.
According to internal communications obtained by The Intercept, the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security are already moving forward with aspects of Trump’s January 25 executive orders aimed at strengthening the nation’s domestic immigration enforcement structures, including calling for construction of new immigration detention centers along the southern border. Still, the fate of Trump’s anti-sanctuary executive order is still unclear: San Francisco was the first to file a legal challenge against the order, and more cities are expected to follow suit.
But both the Trump administration and state-level Republicans pushing anti-sanctuary-cities measures are facing pushback from an unlikely source — police agencies.
The Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of senior law enforcement executives from the nation’s largest cities, has opposed measures that would punish sanctuary jurisdictions financially for failing to comply with federal immigration authorities since at least 2013. They also oppose efforts that would deputize state and local law police as immigration authorities.
In Texas, Travis County Sheriff Sally Yates’ opposition to SB4 is echoed by police chiefs from the state’s largest cities, including Houston, San Antonio and Austin. They have said that the bill would turn officers in de facto ICE agents, amplifying fear in immigrant communities and making undocumented immigrants less likely to report crimes for fear of deportation.
Reprinted with permission from Truthout