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Criminal Punishments for Officials that Create Sanctuary Cities in Texas

As the President declares a national emergency to circumvent congress and obtain funds to build a wall along the U.S. Mexico border, the debate on immigration has reached a fever pitch. Whether the wall proves to be an effective deterrent to illegal immigrants or not has become besides the point. Immigration as a topic has become a purely political one, driven more by emotion and party loyalty than any tangible logic or reasoning.

Mere mention of illegal immigration or a term related to illegal immigration is enough to trigger a strong response one way or the other. One of the most contentious terms is the phrase “sanctuary city.” 

What Exactly is a Sanctuary City?

Sanctuary Cities are cities where the local government limits how much they cooperate with immigration enforcement entities such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Trump has often rallied his base by railing against sanctuary cities, particularly in California. The shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in the sanctuary city of San Francisco by an illegal alien was a major story during the 2016 presidential election. Candidate Trump even cited Steinle’s death in his acceptance speech during the 2016 Republican National Convention.

What may be confusing is how there can even be sanctuary cities to begin with? How can an entire city decide not to comply with federal law?

Sanctuary cities are not meant to be places where there are no restrictions on illegal immigrants. Rather, sanctuary cities implement policies that prevent law enforcement from detaining individuals solely for suspicion of being an illegal alien and from detaining immigrants longer than usual so that ICE can take custody of the individual. The argument is that being undocumented is a civil violation and not a crime and thus arresting a person who has not been suspected of committing a crime is unconstitutional. It is also argued that holding a person past the time when they should be released is also an unconstitutional detainment. These policies do not prevent law enforcement from arresting illegal aliens for committing crimes and handing them over to ICE when necessary.

Criminalizing Public Officials that Create Sanctuary Cities

Still, many state legislatures have decided to enact laws that would stamp out sanctuary cities. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed SB4 into law in May of 2017. SB4 created a law that punishes local entities for implementing sanctuary city policies with fines and even removal from public office. Local entities would include governing bodies of municipalities, sheriffs, county attorneys, and district attorneys. SB4 has faced constitutional challenges since its introduction but last March the Fifth Circuit ruled that the law could take effect except for a provision that would outlaw “endorsements” of policies that limit immigration enforcement.

While constitutional challenges to the law may seem dead, there are those in the legislature who are working to remove the law. State Senator Jose Rodriguez has introduced SB 168, which would repeal the “Removal from Office” provisions created by SB4. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, Texas Senate republicans outnumber democrats 19 to 12 and Greg Abbott is still governor. That makes repealing even part of SB4 a difficult uphill battle.