By Dan Frosch
Updated May 5, 2017 12:26 p.m. ET
DALLAS—Texas is moving closer to enacting one of the nation’s toughest immigration laws after legislators approved a bill barring municipalities and police departments from adopting sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.
Under the legislation, which Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to sign, local law-enforcement officials could face criminal penalties if they don’t comply with requests from federal authorities to detain illegal immigrants.
The bill also permits police to inquire about the immigration status of suspects and prohibits municipalities from blocking the enforcement of federal immigration law.
Earlier this year, the Democratic sheriff of Travis County, Sally Hernandez, ordered her department to stop detaining illegal immigrants on behalf of federal authorities, a practice that would be barred under the bill. In response, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, stripped $1.8 million in state grants from the county, which includes most of Austin.
In a statement on Thursday, Ms. Hernandez called the bill’s passage “unfortunate,” saying it had been driven by “fear and misinformation.”
Lawmakers in more than two dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana, have introduced bills this year to bar sanctuary policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while Mississippi passed such legislation in March. Meantime, lawmakers in 15 states, including California, New York and Maryland, have proposed legislation to support such policies.
Texas’ bill is unique, however, because it would establish penalties for local officials.
Texas police chiefs and sheriffs who refuse detention requests from federal immigration authorities could face a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail. Any Texas municipality that doesn’t comply could be fined $1,000 to $1,500 for a first offense.
The passage of the Texas bill, which spurred emotional debate in the state for weeks, comes as President Donald Trump has sought to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities as part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration. Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump administration’s efforts, ruling such a policy was likely unconstitutional.
The Texas measure passed both chambers of the Republican-dominated legislature along party lines. Members of the Senate on Wednesday voted to send the final version of the bill to the governor, agreeing with several changes their House counterparts had made.
Supporters have cast the bill as a common-sense safety measure.
“I think it’s important that our police and sheriffs honor these detainer requests from the federal government because these can be really dangerous criminals,” said State Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican from Fort Worth who is one of the legislation’s chief sponsors.
Opponents have argued that the legislation puts local police in the position of having to enforce federal immigration law at the risk of losing their jobs, and would increase racial profiling of Hispanics. They said Thursday that they expect the measure to face legal challenges.
“I know firsthand the impact that [the bill] will have on many families that are currently in the same legal status that my family once was,” said State Rep. Ana Hernandez, a Democrat from Houston, during an emotionally charged legislative hearing on the bill last week. Ms. Hernandez was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. by her parents as an infant but is now a U.S. citizen. She added: “Mothers…will be afraid to go to the grocery store to buy groceries for their family, as my mother was once afraid.”
Angie Junck, supervising attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an immigrant-advocacy group that tracks legislation around the country, said the Texas bill “is unprecedented in terms of how far it goes, requiring penalties for law enforcement.”
The legislation was fast-tracked by Gov. Abbott, who has made punishing sanctuary jurisdictions a legislative priority.
When asked for comment on the bill, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott referred to a tweet the Governor sent out following its passage. “The Texas sanctuary city ban wins final legislative approval. I’m getting my signing pen warmed up,” he wrote.
Law-enforcement officials from major Texas cities, as well as the Texas Police Chiefs Association, oppose the bill. They argue it would strain police departments by forcing them to shoulder the burden of federal immigration enforcement, while also making immigrants fearful to report crimes.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo took to Twitter recently to voice his opposition, writing, “Violent crime is on rise across our Nation & some would rather men & women in blue go after cooks & nannies, instead of hardened criminals.”