Required to Detain

Texas legislation could force campus police departments to hold on to those they arrest until federal immigration authorities can consider their legal status.

February 17, 2017
Texas State Senator Charles Perry

Opponents on campuses have been steeling themselves to keep battling a proposed anti-sanctuary bill since the Texas Senate passed the controversial measure last week.

The bill seeks to compel state government officials, local government leaders and campus law enforcement officers to cooperate in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Colleges' police forces would not be able to prevent officers from asking about arrestees' immigration status or keep them from communicating with immigration officials. Campus police would also have to comply if a federal official asked them to hold a person while officials determined whether that person was in the United States without legal authorization. This shift could significantly curtail colleges' ability to avoid helping federal authorities with deportations.

The fact that the bill would cover campus police hits home for students, said Vanessa Rodriguez, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It puts this sense of urgency on us,” Rodriguez said. “It’s no longer just our parents, but it’s us, too, and future students who are planning to enter college.”

The bill is moving through the Legislature at a time when campuses across the country are facing questions of how they will handle increased emphasis on immigration law in light of President Trump’s hard-line stances. The questions escalated this week after a 23-year-old immigrant in Seattle sued the government after being detained despite holding a permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created by President Obama to protect many students who were brought to the United States as children by their parents without going through the proper channels. Many students covered under the DACA policy attend college.

Republican Senators passed a strengthened version of the Texas bill Feb. 8 on a party-line vote. The state’s majority-Republican House of Representatives must now consider it. Many believe its passage is likely after Governor Greg Abbott declared a sanctuary ban an emergency item during his State of the State address in January.

Specifically, the bill would withhold state grant money from cities, counties, state criminal justice agencies and campus police departments that take a soft stance on immigration. Grant funding could be withheld if those entities prohibit or discourage immigration-law enforcement.

Campus officers could not be prohibited or discouraged from asking about the immigration status of those they have arrested or from coordinating with immigration officers. Entities would be subject to fines starting at $1,000 and escalating to as much as $25,500 per violation.

The bill carries other penalties for municipalities and local leaders. Leaders who violate its terms would be subject to a class A misdemeanor. Governments releasing immigrants that federal officials have requested held would be open to lawsuit if those released immigrants went on to commit a felony in the state within 10 years.

The measure’s backers argue that it prevents local officials from selectively enforcing the law and undermining its integrity. Its author, Senator Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, has said it needs to cover colleges and universities amid a push for sanctuary campuses.

"Our legislation is simple -- government entities cannot undermine the rule of law by ignoring our immigration laws,” Perry said in a December news release. “If colleges and universities intend to follow the example of sanctuary cities, we must ensure that our legislation specifically includes them.”

Many colleges have pledged not to help federal authorities identify people without legal status in the United States. Students, faculty and alumni have also pushed campuses in Texas to declare sanctuary status. But no institution in Texas was known to have made that declaration as of Thursday.

Perry made a similar case for his legislation when the bill passed, saying that government is supposed to punish evil, provide a base for social stability and offer a basis for social order. Standards cannot be “dependent upon an individual,” he said, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Democrats have argued that the bill will cause racial profiling and distrust between immigrants and police. More than 500 people testified against it in a hearing at the beginning of February that reportedly lasted 16 hours.

One of those people was Rodriguez, the freshman at UT Austin. She takes part in the University Leadership Initiative, an organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants.

Rodriguez is an undocumented immigrant who is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy the Obama administration put in place. Now 18, she has been in Texas since she was 6 years old, when her family came from near Mexico City.

Opponents of the bill are now trying to identify moderate Republican representatives who might hear them out, Rodriguez said. They hope to convince such representatives that the bill will not do what its backers say it will.

“It’s not attacking simply criminals,” she said. “It’s attacking a general population of immigrants, whether they’re students getting their education or parents who are just working for their family.”

The bill that the Senate passed specifically says that law enforcement agencies can perform outreach to tell the public that they “may not inquire into the immigration status of a detained person” in some instances. It goes on to spell out instances including if someone is a victim of a crime or witnesses one and if they are the victim of family violence or sexual assault. It also prevents officers from searching a motor vehicle, home or business solely to enforce immigration law -- unless they are cooperating with federal officials.

But Rodriguez rejected the idea that immigrants could avoid being affected by the bill by not committing crimes.

“It won’t be that way,” she said. “My father was once detained from a minor traffic offense, and that was in a time period when SB 4 wasn’t even on the horizon.”

The debate over the Senate bill’s effect on campuses has been overshadowed in some ways by a louder discussion about sanctuary cities. Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has become the face of that debate after she promised to limit federal immigration enforcement cooperation in her jurisdiction, which includes the city of Austin. In response, Abbott, the state’s governor, said he would withhold $1.5 million in state criminal justice funding.

It’s also not clear exactly how many students would be affected by campus police changing their policies. Many Texas public higher education institutions shy away from commenting on pending legislation because they cannot lobby for or against bills.

The University of Houston System will work within the law, said Mike Rosen, a spokesman, in an email.

“We are the second most diverse public university in the country,” he said. “We will continue to use the legal tools at our disposal to protect the constitutional rights of our students, and we will continue to cooperate with law enforcement and follow all state and federal laws.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board does estimate the number of students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents but who are classified as Texas residents for higher education purposes. That population comprises about 1.5 percent of all students enrolled in Texas public institutions as of the 2015 fiscal year, about 25,000 people. That estimate likely includes some individuals in Texas on visas, however.

Texas is not the only state where legislators have targeted sanctuary campuses. On Tuesday Alabama's House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow that state's attorney general to pull state funds from campuses that are not complying with immigration law.

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