Texas stokes immigration debate with ‘sanctuary cities’ ban

Protesters, who are against the Senate Bill 4 Sanctuary Cities ban, rally outside the Texas Department of Insurance building, where Gov. Greg Abbott has an office in Austin, Texas, Monday, May 1, 2017. Protesters decrying proposed Texas legislation compelling local police to enforce federal immigration law continue to stage a sit-in at the state building. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas charged to the forefront of the national debate over immigration as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a so-called “sanctuary cities” ban that lets police ask during routine stops whether someone is in the U.S. legally and threatens sheriffs with jail if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents.

The new Texas law was blasted by opponents as the nation’s toughest on immigrants since Arizona’s crackdown in 2010. Opponents vowed to challenge it in court.

Abbott signed the measure on Facebook Live Sunday evening without advance notice, which critics said was to avoid protesters. Abbott spokesman John Wittman said they chose to sign the bill on social media because that’s “where most people are getting their news nowadays.”

The law allows police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they detain, a situation that can range from arrest for a crime to being stopped for a traffic violation.

It also requires police chiefs and sheriffs — under the threat of jail and removal of office — to comply with federal requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation. Republicans have a strong majority in the Legislature and shoved aside Democratic objections, even as President Donald Trump’s efforts to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities have hit roadblocks in federal courts.

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

Democratic state Rep. Cesar Blanco said it looked like Abbott “wanted to get ahead” of any protests by staging the signing on Facebook Live.

Texas is nation’s second most populous state, and opponents say Hispanics will now be subjected to racial profiling and predicted the law will have a chilling effect on immigrant families.

The bill won’t take effect until Sept. 1. Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said “we will fight this assault in the courts” and the ballot box. Abbott said key provisions of the bill had already been tested at the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down several components of Arizona’s law but allowed the provision permitting police to ask about immigration status.

The term “sanctuary cities” has no legal definition, but Republicans want local police to help federal immigration agents crack down on criminal suspects in the U.S. illegally. Some Democrats said the timing of the signing particularly stung after three recent federal court rulings that found intentional discrimination in Republican-passed voting laws.

“They did not connect the history of our culture or how closely that it is tied to Mexico,” Democratic state. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez said. “It’s just extremely personal. There is a lot of disconnect. They don’t really see this as affecting people.”

The Texas and Arizona bills are not identical. Whereas the Arizona law required police to try to determine the immigration status of people during routine stops, the Texas bill doesn’t instruct officers to ask. But it does allow Texas police to inquire whether a person is in the country legally, even if they’re not under arrest.

Texas doesn’t currently have any cities which have formally declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants.

But Sally Hernandez, the sheriff of Travis County, which includes liberal Austin, has refused to honor federal requests to detain immigrants if the suspects weren’t arrested for immigration offenses or serious crimes such as murder. Hernandez softened her policy after Abbott cut funding to the county, saying decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis. She said before Abbott sign it that she would conform to the ban if it became law.

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Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/pauljweber

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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