Sanctuary Cities

Texas Lawmakers Vote to Force Local Police Help the Feds Detain and Deport Immigrants

No cities in the state have been targeted by the Justice Department for noncompliance, but never mind.


Texas capitol
Crackerclips /

President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the Department of Justice can't force police officers in Texas to assist them in rounding up and deporting immigrants no matter how loudly they make such demands. But lawmakers in Texas can, and that's exactly what has happened.

Wednesday evening the Texas Senate approved SB 4, legislation that pretty much eliminates the concept of "sanctuary cities" within the state by authorizing officials to check the immigration status of anybody they detain (with exceptions for those who are in custody solely because they're witnesses or reporting a crime). The bill had already passed the state's House.

Much more importantly that just the immigration checks, SB 4 orders local police and authorities, under threat of civil and criminal penalty (and possible removal from office) to assist federal immigration officials by complying with "detainer" orders when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asks them to keep a deportable immigrant in custody until they come and pick him or her up.

Cooperation with immigration authorities has been a source of both contention and confusion in this fight. Those who rage against illegal immigration present sanctuary cities—where authorities typically do not check the residency status of people they encounter or detain—as defying the federal government. But in reality, federal law doesn't (and really technically cannot) require state or local officials to assist ICE in efforts to detain and deport people. The "detainer" orders sent to police or prison officials when ICE is attempting to collect somebody for deportation are just requests. Many cities comply. Some don't. Some require warrants or some sort of court order that the targeted individual has committed a crime first.

What actually is a violation of federal immigration law is any regulation or ordinance that prohibits local authorities from communicating with ICE or the Justice Department about a person's immigration or citizenship status. Apparently some sanctuary cities have ordinances that forbid this communication. When Sessions and the Justice Department sent out threatening letters warning they would cut federal grants to sanctuary cities, it actually only affected a small number of them (eight cities and one county). Why? These were the only cities with policies that might have actually interfered with communication between the feds and local authorities. It had nothing to do with cooperating with requests from the feds for assistance in deporting people.

And in fact, none of the cities targeted by the Department of Justice are in Texas. Not even Austin, where police leaders have openly said they would not comply with detainer orders, has been targeted. This is all despite the fact that Travis County, where Austin is found, was featured heavily in the Justice Department's first report that attempted to shame communities who were not cooperating with the feds.

So it's important to understand that what Texas lawmakers have done with SB 4 is to go above and beyond what federal law requires and orders cities and police, with the threat of civil and criminal penalties, to treat detainer requests from ICE as actual orders.

Houston's police chief, along with the executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association (so note that we aren't talking about just the hippies over there in Austin) warned in a commentary for the Houston Chronicle that this law is political pandering that will actually harm public safety and not help at all:

SB 4 requires local law enforcement to take a more active role in immigration enforcement; this will tear down what we've worked so hard to build up. Officers will start inquiring about the immigration status of every person they come in contact with, or worse, only inquire about the immigration status of individuals based on their appearance. This will lead to distrust of police, less cooperation from members of the community and will foster the belief that they cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration-status investigation. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Distrust and fear of contacting or assisting the police has already become evident among legal immigrants. Legal immigrants are beginning to avoid contact with the police for fear that they themselves or undocumented family members or friends may become subject to immigration enforcement. Such a divide between the local police and immigrant groups will result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims, and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing crime. It should not be forgotten that by not arresting criminals who victimize our immigrant communities, we are also allowing them to remain free to victimize the rest of us.

These immigrants have good reason to fear. The increase of immigration enforcement under Trump is not just collecting the "bad hombres" the president invokes and sending them back to Mexico or South America. Data shows that many of the immigrants detained for deportation by ICE had only traffic violations as their crimes or had not even been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department's first report intended to document the illegal immigrants that sanctuary cities were protecting from deportation was also full of people who had committed minor crimes or had not even been convicted.

The governor of Texas has already said he'll sign SB 4, so consider it a done deal. A state that prides itself on its independence is going to force its cities and counties to help the federal government deport immigrants. Police and jail officials who resist face fines, criminal penalties, and could even get removed from office.

Read the law here.