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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

In Texas, a coming clash on 'sanctuary' cities

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement AgentsImage via Wikipedia  
Source: Statesman

By Suzannah Gonzales

Gov. Rick Perry this week pushed to the top of the legislative agenda the abolition of so-called sanctuary cities, which he says protect undocumented immigrants. But law enforcement authorities in major Texas cities say tackling that issue is not their job.

Police and sheriff's officials in Austin, Dallas and Houston say they don't enforce immigration laws or ask people about their immigration status, in part to encourage people to report crimes and work with police.

Law enforcement officers in Austin, Travis County and Houston are not allowed under department policy to stop people to determine their immigration status or because they think someone is in the country illegally. And policies in Austin and Dallas County say law enforcement officers work to keep people safe regardless of their immigration status.

"A police officer in Austin or anywhere else in the United States does not automatically have (federal) authority to enforce immigration rules," Austin police Chief of Staff David Carter said. "And therefore, we do not enforce United States immigration rules. It is our strong belief that is the role of the federal government to do so, as well as enforce the border."

"We simply do not have sufficient resources to get involved in immigration issues, not withstanding those involving criminal conduct," he added.

Carter declined to talk about sanctuary city legislation that might be passed.

While campaigning for re-election last year, Perry charged that Houston was a sanctuary city under his Democratic challenger, former Mayor Bill White . He repeated the charge this week in calling for new legislation.

"There are cities in this state that have made decisions that they're going to be havens for those who are either in conflict with federal immigration laws or state laws, and we're going to prohibit that," Perry said Wednesday.

He did not elaborate, but his spokeswoman said that he wants to ensure that "we're not tying the hands" of law enforcement officials to do their job and adhere to federal law.

"He wants to make sure that during the course of a stop, if an officer has reason to believe that an individual is an illegal alien, they should be able to report that," spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said. "In a sanctuary city situation, some policies would restrict that."

She declined to name other cities that the governor thinks are sanctuary cities.

Designating the elimination of sanctuary cities an emergency issue for the session — Perry also named the protection of private property rights in eminent domain cases as an emergency issue — means legislation on the issue can be fast-tracked for approval.

A slew of bills targeting sanctuary cities have been filed, including one by Rep. Debbie Riddle , R-Tomball , that would require local governments that don't enforce immigration laws to forfeit state funding. A bill by Sen. Dan Patrick , R-Houston , and Rep. Patricia Harless , R-Houston , would require cities to share immigration information with federal agents.

In San Antonio, police officers are not required to report people to federal authorities or even ask for identification "unless they suspect a crime has been committed. Furthermore, officers are not required to report individuals to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, even if they are suspected immigrants," San Antonio police Sgt. Chris Benavides said in an e-mail .

Under a Travis County sheriff's policy, deputies also are not required to notify federal immigration officials and will not call them except in suspected human trafficking or terrorism cases.

According to Houston police policy, officers will contact federal authorities only if a person is arrested on a separate criminal charge other than a Class C misdemeanor "and the officer knows the prisoner is an illegal alien." Officers are prohibited from taking part in federal raids primarily for arresting people for their undocumented status, according to the policy, in effect since 1992 .

Under Austin police policy, officers will cooperate with federal authorities in identifying and targeting criminally active and violent undocumented gang members.

Dallas County sheriff and Houston police policies note the role undocumented immigrants play in law enforcement.

"Participation and involvement of the undocumented aliens' community in law enforcement activities will increase the Sheriff's Department's ability to protect and serve the entire community," states the Dallas County policy, put in place last year.

"As police officers, we must rely upon the cooperation of all persons, including citizens, documented aliens, and undocumented aliens, in our effort to maintain public order and combat crime," the Houston policy says.

Harris County sheriff's deputies at the jail there are cross-trained to enforce immigration laws, an ICE spokeswoman said

The Travis County sheriff's policy says that deputies can ask about or seek proof of a person's immigration status if the person is in custody or a suspect in a criminal investigation for a nonimmigration criminal violation and the person's immigration status is pertinent to the investigation. The policy, signed by Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and effective Feb. 1, 2008 , was a best practices policy proposed by advocacy groups, sheriff's spokesman Roger Wade said.

Corrections officers at the Travis County Jail ask incoming inmates where they were born on booking sheets, Wade said, "but that's as far as it goes." A main reason officers ask for birthplace is because some consulates require that they be notified if a citizen of their country is arrested, according to Wade.

Similarly, when an individual is booked into jail in Dallas County after being arrested, an officer fills out a booking sheet that asks place of birth, Dallas County sheriff's Det. Raul Reyna said. Those born outside the U.S. may be questioned further by a federal immigration authority who is stationed at the booking site, he said.

The Dallas and San Antonio police departments do not have policies addressing immigration status, according to department representatives.

Additional material from staff writers Corrie MacLaggan and Jason Embry.
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