‘Sanctuary cities’ bill debated in Texas

AUSTIN — A Honduran man was about to be deported last week out of the Rio Grande Valley. He was fleeing the country after allegedly committing a serious crime. Meanwhile, state senators debated immigration law enforcement on the Senate floor here.

He allegedly assaulted a 56-year-old McAllen man on Jan. 30, left the man critically injured and allegedly stole the man’s black SUV.

Local officials believe the injured man will soon die, which would then bring on an allegation of capital murder. Officials believe the Honduran man might have also committed crimes in Houston before McAllen.

The Honduran man was in the United States illegally and had been deported before, officials believe. During the same time, politicians here have been arguing about how to go about enforcing immigration laws, and if it’s up to the local entities.

Senate Bill 4, which was the one being heavily debated last week, would punish local and state governmental entities that refuse to enforce immigration laws or cooperate with federal immigration officials.

SB4 passed the Senate on a 20-11 vote and will now move on to the House of Representatives. State Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, voted against it. If SB4 passes into law as it’s currently constructed, it would be a class A misdemeanor.

What every state senator agrees on is less crime. However, SB4 likely would not have prevented the Honduran man from the alleged assault and theft of the SUV.

But after he allegedly did, police said, they then responded to a car accident in the 3100 block of the Expressway 83 Frontage Road, where they found the SUV in a canal. Witnesses told police the driver fled the scene.

Police then went to the home the vehicle was registered to, where the 56-year-old was in serious condition outside the residence and transported to a local hospital, police said. But the unidentified suspect was still at large. The only thing the police put out to the public was a sketch.

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said this is how his department operates: they have probable cause with pulling someone over. If they then find out the person might be undocumented, then communication begins with federal agencies.

Days after the Honduran fled the scene of the alleged SUV theft, an undocumented man was pulled over and per McAllen police protocol, was then transferred to Border Patrol because he was undocumented. Then, the man, from Honduras, was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officials said, for deportation.

About an hour before the flight was scheduled to leave last week, McAllen police called, asking ICE to hold the Honduran man. McAllen police believed it may have been the same Honduran man who allegedly committed the assault and robbery. ICE honored the request, officials said.

McAllen and the Texas Rangers put out a press release on Feb. 7 about this incident with a sketch of the Honduran. Once the sketch was out, officers who dealt with the apprehension of the Honduran realized it looked similar to the man they turned over to Border Patrol, which is when the action started to call ICE and hold the Honduran, officials said.

“We do not enforce federal immigration law — we can’t,” Rodriguez said. “Immigration is a federal jurisdictional enforcement issue. We cannot do immigration work at a local level. And that is especially true in a border community like ours. We respond to calls for service every three-and-a-half minutes. If we take our people off that, who will field those calls? That’s a federal responsibility.”

McAllen is not a sanctuary city and does not plan to declare itself one, according to top officials in the city. It can be confusing because of the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which temporarily houses immigrants. But everyone who enters the respite center is legal. They have already been apprehended by authorities and are waiting for their day in immigration court, which could take years.

A pivotal peg in immigration law enforcement at the local level is Arizona v. United States, a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that tried to increase the powers of local law enforcement who wished to enforce federal immigration laws.

The act made it a state misdemeanor crime for an illegal immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents required by federal law. But the Supreme Court struck down three of the four provisions in the case: requiring legal immigrants to carry registration documents at all times, allowing state police to arrest any individual for suspicion of being an illegal immigrant and making it a crime for an illegal immigrant to search for a job (or to hold one) in the state of Arizona.

“That Supreme Court case outcome is how we operate,” Rodriguez said. “Our primary objective is what’s governed by the constitution. There has to be some sort of probable cause. If I pull someone over because a person runs a stop sign and in doing so I determine he or she is wanted by ICE for whatever reason, then we go through the proper channels in transferring that person to them. But we’re not going out doing immigration work on a primary basis. We can’t do that.”

Rodriguez said they often figure out documentation from the first question: asking for identification.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, the author of SB4, said many times last week that he trusts the men and women that put their lives at risk to protect the law. Perry has a problem with the distrust people have with trusting law enforcement, as this bill could possibly give them more authority.

Hinojosa thinks this bill gets into overreach, which Gov. Greg Abbott accused the Obama administration of countless times. State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, doesn’t have a problem with inquiring into any holds or the status of immigrants.

“My question and my concern is because I also trust my chief of police and I trust my local sheriffs, that they know how to manage their department,” Menendez said. “To some degree, it seems like we’re here at the legislature trying to micromanage their decisions on how to manage their departments.”

Many officials in the Valley who deal with immigration and border security every day have said the problem is the federal immigration system – the path to citizenship, dealings with Central American countries, the process of letting people into the country and much more.

Hinojosa said the economy benefits substantially from undocumented immigrants and listed many jobs they take on – hotels, construction, restaurants.

“You have to separate those workers and families who abide by the law from those who actually commit crime,” Hinojosa said. “That’s an important difference that can be done much simpler than this bill.”

Rodriguez, though, like many in the Valley, is not publicly endorsing or denouncing the bill. Gov. Abbott promised to cut funding for counties or cities that declare sanctuary status. He made good on that promise earlier this month when he cut funding for Travis County, where Austin resides, after county sheriff, Sally Hernandez, enacted a policy that rolls back her department’s cooperation with ICE.

Many in the Valley have said, however, that federal immigration policy is the chief problem, much more so than sanctuary cities.

“That ought to be this country’s first and foremost priority,” Rodriguez said. “Clearly defining what this country’s immigration policy is.”