Two Texas lawmakers ask attorney general for opinion ahead of 2009 session.
By Juan Castillo
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Signaling a revival of the illegal immigration debate in the 2009 legislative session, two Republican state lawmakers have asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to weigh in on a thorny subject: "sanctuary cities."
The term has been used to describe Austin, Houston and dozens of other cities across the United States that don't require police or other municipal employees to report to federal authorities people who may be in the country illegally.
In a letter sent to Abbott this month, Rep. Frank Corte Jr. of San Antonio and Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston asked whether the Texas Legislature has the authority to deter local governments from adopting policies — or to invalidate existing policies — that hinder state enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Such policies "would include those that prevent local citizens, officials, or law enforcement agencies from cooperating with the federal government regarding a person's immigration status," their letter says. "Although federal law expressly forbids local policies that prohibit or restrict information regarding immigrant status, sanctuary cities continue to support such policies."
The lawmakers' letter doesn't name Austin. But advocates of tougher illegal immigration enforcement have labeled Austin and other cities as sanctuary cities, saying they prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person's immigration status or bar local agencies from sharing information about immigration status with the federal government. Such practices make the cities havens for illegal immigrants and criminals, critics say.
City officials dispute the idea that Austin is a sanctuary city. They say nothing prevents police from asking about the immigration status of a person they're investigating but that officers don't routinely do that because their job is to solve crimes, not be immigration officials.
Current policy prohibits Austin police from stopping or detaining people solely to check their immigration status or from checking the immigration status of victims or witnesses. It does require cooperation with immigration officials to help identify illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Immigrant advocates say such policies encourage victims and witnesses of crimes to come forward without fear of being deported, and police have said such treatment makes the city safer for everyone.
Former Mayor Gus Garcia said confusion about the sanctuary issue may stem from a 1997 City Council resolution declaring the city a "safety zone, where all persons are treated equally, with respect and dignity, regardless of immigration status." The resolution says the city will not discriminate or deny city services on the basis of a person's immigration status.
Garcia said it was approved partly to deter racial profiling by police officers.
He said he has told undocumented immigrants that if they commit a crime, they will be punished like anyone else if convicted.
"We never said we are inviting people to come here because this is a sanctuary city," Garcia said Tuesday.
Corte, chairman of the Defense Affairs and State-Federal Relations Committee in the Texas House, said he sought the attorney general's opinion because what the state can and cannot do in the arena of immigration enforcement "is an important issue with a lot of our constituents. ... Citizens feel laws are not being upheld, and they as taxpayers are having to pay for citizens who are breaking the laws."
In their letter, Corte and Patrick cite a 2007 Oklahoma law that prohibits sanctuary cities.
Corte acknowledged that immigration laws are considered a federal responsibility and that the Oklahoma law might be challenged in federal court.
But, he said, "we should have the ability to enforce our laws. If someone commits a crime in our state and we find out they're an illegal alien, I think that needs to be one of the things we prosecute illegal aliens for."
During the 2007 legislative session, Republicans led an assault on illegal immigration, sponsoring more than three dozen bills that sought to make it harder for illegal immigrants to live in the state.
An estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants live in Texas; 12 million nationally.
At least 20 of the immigration bills never made it out of the House State Affairs Committee after its chairman, David Swinford, R-Dumas, said that lawyers from the attorney general's office had advised him that the proposals might not pass legal challenges or were trumped by federal law.
As lawmakers prepare for the next legislative session, Corte said, "it'd be nice to have the attorney general tell us that."
Is Austin a sanctuary city?
Cities that prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person's immigration status or bar local agencies from sharing information about immigrant status with the federal government are often labeled 'sanctuary cities.' Advocates of immigration enforcement contend the policies make the cities havens for illegal immigrants and conflict with federal immigration law.
In 1997, the city of Austin passed a resolution declaring the city a 'safety zone' in which everyone is treated equally regardless of immigration status.
Current policy prohibits Austin police from stopping or detaining people solely to check their immigration status or checking the immigration status of victims or witnesses, but does require cooperation with immigration officials to help identify illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
'Don't ask' cities
In addition to Austin, Houston and Katy, other cities identified as having 'don't ask, don't tell' policies regarding illegal immigrants, according to a 2006 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service include Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Detroit, Baltimore, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Madison, Wis.