Senate Bill 4- Impact, Implications, and Emotions

By Andrea Elizondo, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group, and Chenelle Hammonds, intern in the University of Houston Office of Governmental Relations

On May 7, 2017 Texas Governor Greg Abbott officially signed into law SB 4, authored by Republican State Senator Charles Perry of Lubbock, otherwise known as the “anti-sanctuary city law,” and criticized as the “show me your papers” law. The law enforces federal immigration law compliance on state and local entities. This means that local peace officers are now required to act as stand-in federal immigration agents. This measure will make Texas the first state to ban sanctuary cities under the Trump administration, when it goes into effect September 1, 2017. A few months prior, President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving broad discretion to immigration agents to arrest undocumented immigrants, regardless of the commission of a crime, while also threatening to withhold federal funding from any city deemed a “sanctuary city.” SB4 mirrors President Trump’s injunction, focused specifically on the state of Texas.

This special post is longer than our usual blog posts to help social workers and others better understand this major new law, the context in which it emerged, its potential impacts in Texas, and ways that social workers can support immigrant families within this new legal environment.

Jump to: Brief History of U.S. Federal Immigration Laws, The Origin of SB4 and the Concept of Sanctuary Cities, How Did SB4 Develop, and What Does it Do?, Emotions & Reactions from Both Sides, Assessing the Potential Impact, What Social Workers Can Do Moving Forward, Media Related to the Events of SB 4


Brief History of U.S. Federal Immigration Laws

To get to the root of SB4, it is helpful to better understand the history behind federal immigration laws. Relatively free and open immigration was encouraged within the U.S. until some states began to pass immigration laws in the late 1800s, following the Civil War. In 1875, the Supreme Court determined that regulating immigration is a federal responsibility. Although various statutes governed federal immigration laws in the proceeding years, there was no official unified body of text until the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952.

The Act, sponsored by two Democrats, was originally vetoed by President Harry Truman. President Truman, also a Democrat, vetoed the Act as he regarded it to be “un-American” and “discriminatory.” Eventually however, Truman’s veto was overridden by Congress and passed into law. Bipartisan efforts to curb illegal immigration resulted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The IRCA denied welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants and strengthened sanctions against employers hiring such immigrants, yet nevertheless granted amnesty to certain undocumented immigrants under specific circumstances. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act addressed the relationship between the federal and local governments. It made minor crimes – such as shoplifting – grounds for possible deportation, placed restrictions on institutions of higher education from granting undocumented students in-state tuition, and outlawed the bans some cities had against employers reporting an employee’s immigration status to federal authorities.

Fast forward more than a decade later, and the U.S. is still marked with conflicting waves of pardoning and restricting illegal immigration. The history of U.S. immigration shows that periods of influx of newcomers settling into American neighborhoods, communities, businesses, and schools have often been met with calls for the tightening of immigration laws. According to Pew Research, the growth in Texas’ Hispanic population is second only to California, increasing 56% from 6.7 million in 2000 to 10.4 million in 2014. Texas is no exception to this pattern of immigration regulation and reform prompted by increasing numbers of migrants.


The Origin of SB4 and the Concept of Sanctuary Cities

Law enforcement agencies in Texas already comply with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Nevertheless, the bill was proposed in response to Travis County (Austin, Texas) Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s statement that she would comply with ICE on the minimum level, meaning that her office would only call ICE for a serious offense (human trafficking, murder, sexual assault, etc.) and not for minor offenses. According to Cacho v. Gusman, federal law permits this; this specific settlement agreement allowed the prisons in question to only follow ICE hold requests where serious crimes were involved and prohibited local sheriffs from investigating individuals’ immigration statuses.

Gov. Abbott seized this opportunity to make an anti-sanctuary city bill one of his top legislative priorities. He also cited concerns for public safety and a particular incident involving an undocumented immigrant known as Juan Rios. Rios had been arrested in Texas multiple times and deported three times. Last September, he went on a deadly crime spree across Texas, killing two people and kidnapping another. In his 2017 State of the State address, Abbott stated that “To protect Texans from deadly danger, we must insist that laws be followed.”

It is to be noted, however, that there is no legal definition of a “sanctuary city.” The specific term emerged in the 1980s during protests against federal immigration policies that denied El Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees asylum. Several cities led the way in pushing back; most notably, San Francisco passed an ordinance forbidding city police or civil magistrates from assisting federal immigration offices. In response, a Roman Catholic Priest in Los Angeles by the name of Luis Olivares declared his church as a “sanctuary” for people who were poor, homeless, and undocumented. Hence, the term “sanctuary cities” emerged.

The term became more widely used during the 2008 Republican Presidential Primary, when Mitt Romney accused former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani of running the city as a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants. (Giuliani was once a staunch proponent of a path to citizenship.) Since then, opposition to “sanctuary cities” has manifested into a movement sweeping across the U.S.

Of note, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – appointed by President Trump – visited Austin in April,  suggesting that the city is not an actual “sanctuary” and acknowledging that Travis County is, in fact, complying with federal immigration law. So what then, constitutes a “sanctuary city?” Neither the U.S. Department of Justice, the Trump administration, nor the Texas Legislature (even in this law) have defined this term. With no clear definition of the highly politicized term, how is a ban like SB4 to be fairly enforced?


How Did SB4 Develop, and What Does it Do?

The Texas Senate acted on SB4 swiftly, passing it in February. It was passed by the Texas House on April 27th. The Senate confirmed the changes made by the House and sent the bill to the Governor for his signature on May 3. While Gov. Abbott originally slated the bill to target those who have committed crimes in the State, as the legislative process developed – particularly on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives – the bill deviated from its original intent, becoming more punitive to undocumented immigrants.

At its core, SB4 enforces federal immigration law compliance on state and local entities. It excludes peace officer enforcement in hospitals, churches, school districts, open-enrollment charter schools, and public health departments like community health centers and mental health facilities. A series of amendments sought to limit the law’s impacts on certain populations; however many of these proposed amendments failed. As a result:

  • Officers can inquire about immigration status of a person, even if the person is a victim or witness to a crime.
  • Countless amendments offering protections to pre-kindergarten children, homeless shelters, and shelters for battered and abused women were shot down with a consistent vote along party lines.
  • Campus police departments are required to comply.

Although the law includes an anti-discrimination clause, this clause is relatively vague, stating, “A local entity, campus police department, or a person employed by, or otherwise under the direction or control of the entity or department, may not consider race, color, religion, language, or national origin while enforcing immigration laws except to the extent permitted by the United States Constitution or Texas Constitution.”  These “exceptions” leave much room for possible targeted discrimination toward foreign immigrants.

The law specifically addresses the complaint process, if one believes that a law enforcement agency or campus police department is not compliant with this law. Any individual residing in a law enforcement jurisdiction or enrolled/employed at an institution of higher education may file a complaint to the state attorney general against a person or entity found to be non-compliant. If law enforcement agencies or campus police are found by the state attorney general to have violated state and federal immigration law, the following penalties will ensue:

  • The agency will be charged with a civil penalty of $1,000-$1,500 for the first violation and $25,000-25,500 for each subsequent violation.
  • The law enforcement agency will be charged with a Class A Misdemeanor, the most serious misdemeanor in the state, punishable up to $4,000 and up to one year in jail.
  • A person holding elective or appointed office of a political subdivision that violates federal immigration law or any sections of SB4 would forfeit their position.

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the law, however, is an amendment added on the House floor. The original Senate and House version allowed local peace officers to inquire about immigration status during a lawful arrest – this change allows officers to question the immigration status of any person they detain. This amendment goes so far beyond the bill’s original focus solely on criminal undocumented immigrants that even the author of the House version bill, Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, amongst a few other Republicans, opposed it on the House floor.

As a result of this detention provision, now incorporated into the law, opponents have proclaimed that Texas, like Arizona in 2010, has become a “show me your papers” state. The Arizona law was the target of much criticism, boycotts, and lawsuits, culminating in a settlement with immigrant rights groups last year. However, Gov. Abbott argues that this provision differs from the Arizona law, in that it “allows” officers to check legal status, but does not require it. Despite such assurances from the Governor, this amendment still begs the question: If SB4 is really just about ICE detainers and public safety, why allow routine traffic stops to become reasonable grounds for suspicion?


Emotions & Reactions from Both Sides

During the 16-hour debate on the floor of the House, emotions stirred high amongst opponents of the bill with state representatives wearing their hearts on their sleeves. State Representatives Rafael Anchia, Mary Gonzales, Ana Hernandez, and Gene Wu gave heartbreaking personal privilege speeches to show their opposition towards the bill. (Videos of some of these incredible, emotional speeches are linked here: Anchia, Wu).

During 10 hours of testimony before the House State Affairs Committee, as well as in other community efforts to oppose this bill, advocacy groups and members of Texas’ immigrant community argued that the legislation is redundant, unconstitutional, and based on fear-mongering and generalizations of the immigrant communities. Many Hispanic immigrants in Texas voiced their opposition, viewing the bill as a direct attack on their community. This idea is not far-fetched, as Cardoso and Faulkner find that “deportations disproportionately impact the Latino community – 96% of all people deported were from Latin America and the majority of children with at least one undocumented parent are Latino, mostly from Mexico (70%) and other Latin American countries (17%).” While undocumented immigrants are not solely Latino, Latinos are stereotyped at a disproportionate rate for being undocumented due to media portrayal of this group.

Other opponents see this bill as a fear-mongering tactic; some suggested that the man being used as example for this bill’s necessity would not have been politicized in this same way had he been a White American citizen. These opponents testified that in contrast to immigrants of color, Whites are often seen as individuals, meaning, that if one White person does harm, society doesn’t punish the whole group, nor enact policies that target the entire group based on the actions of one.

Opponents also expressed concern that SB 4 will terrorize immigrant communities in Texas. They argued that fewer crimes will be reported because individuals from immigrant communities will be too afraid to report crimes out of fear of deportation. They believe that this law will hurt the most vulnerable in Texas, like human trafficking victims, domestic and sexual assault victims, school age children, and immigrant families. For instance, a rape victim who is an undocumented immigrant may fail to call law enforcement out of fear of being detained; thus, the perpetrator could go free and continue to harm others. Testifiers suggested that this would accomplish the exact opposite of the bill’s expressed purpose, making communities less safe. They posited that children with undocumented parents and their mixed-status families will face mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, etc., and that undocumented college students won’t feel safe going to class or will feel discouraged to attend out of fear. This could negatively impact the state’s college retention rates, education workforce, and labor market. Additionally, opponents argued that this law will exacerbate mistrust of law enforcement within communities of people of color, further damaging the police and community relationship and enabling racial profiling of immigrants.

In contrast, proponents of SB4 argued that the law fosters a greater sense of security amongst all residents, including immigrant communities. Supporters believe that by ensuring that local entities do not prohibit enforcement of federal immigration laws, both local officials and federal authorities can work together to keep dangerous criminals off the street. They argue that the law simply applies uniform standards to the state, affecting few cities, as most cities report that they operate in compliance with federal law. Under current law, all law enforcement agencies send an arrestee’s fingerprints to the FBI, after which ICE can request that a jail hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally for up to 48 hours. SB4 calls for an undocumented individual to be held in federal custody confinement for no more than 7 days for a serious crime, and the state is expected to wait for a transfer approval from ICE if there is no current detainer request from ICE on the individual. Supporters argued that allowing certain cities and entities to disregard these requests enables potential criminals to return to the community and commit serious crimes.

Proponents also stated that the law has other positives, including allowing law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy about educating the public on the bill and its implementation, potentially improving police-community relations. This outreach must include victims of family violence and sexual assault. Supporters noted the law creates a system of due process, as the Attorney General can sue entities or departments in a district court only upon determination that a complaint of non-compliance is valid. Furthermore, the law creates a grant program to financially support cities and counties in offsetting costs related to enforcing immigration laws and complying with federal requests to maintain custody of someone relating to a possible immigration violation. Supporters suggested that this will provide more support to local law enforcement agencies and local communities.


Assessing the Potential Impact

With the passage of SB4, Texas meets the criteria of one of 18 states deemed “hostile” towards immigrant populations, based on research conducted by professors at Dartmouth. “Hostile states” are identified as those with laws requiring verification of immigration status in order to acquire a driver’s license, universal employment verification, or cutting funding to “sanctuary cities.” In fact, on May 9, two days after the law’s passage, the ACLU issued a travel alert to travelers to Texas, stating:

“We plan to fight this racist and wrongheaded law in the courts and in the streets. Until we defeat it, everyone traveling in or to Texas needs to be aware of what’s in store for them…every interaction with law enforcement can become a citizenship interrogation and potentially an illegal arrest.”

Several of these “hostile states” have experienced lower numbers of undocumented immigrants living in the state, with unintended consequences. Texas risks facing similar negative economic impacts as previous states that have passed restrictive immigration laws. For example, Georgia experienced substantial labor shortages in agriculture, triggering an estimated $140 million in agricultural losses the year after the state passed HB 87. In response, the state had to send prisoners to harvest fruit and vegetables from the state’s farms. Arizona faced national scrutiny after its passage of SB 1070. While the law was intended to offer increased safety and economic security to Arizona’s residents by cracking down on those in the State unlawfully, its actions came at a great cost. The city of Phoenix alone lost $141 million in business from the tourism and convention industry in the four months following SB 1070’s passage. Parts of the law were eventually found to be unconstitutional as a federal judge ruled that various police departments had engaged in racial profiling in their immigration enforcement practice; this led to an appointed monitor to institute reforms in the state and an agreement that one particular sheriff, Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, pay a series of civil sanctions for failing to comply with court orders.

In 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, regarded as the toughest anti-immigration bill in the U.S. to date. The number of Hispanic children attending public schools dropped significantly. Industries dependent on migrant labor workers were heavily impacted, as American citizens were unwilling to work for low pay under these harsh working conditions. The law also was found to have contributed to an increase in violent crime rates. The immigration law was so broad that a few months after its passage, a German Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested in Alabama, when he left at his hotel his passport identifying his permission to be in the U.S. A month later, a Japanese Honda executive was also stopped at a checkpoint and ticketed even though he had a valid passport and U.S. work permit. Research predicted that HB 56 would shrink Alabama’s annual GDP by $11 billion due to lost sales, lost income taxes, and reduction in consumer demand; however, the law’s financial impact was never able to be truly assessed, as, in October 2013, federal courts declared a number of the controversial law’s provisions unconstitutional.

Although some Americans believe that immigrants negatively impact the economy by ‘stealing’ jobs or pushing down wages, evidence does not support this claim. Research has also shown that immigrant populations are not marked with increased violence. In fact, immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than individuals born in the U.S. Both immigrants born outside the U.S. (first-generation) and children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents (second-generation) are substantially less likely to commit violent crimes than are children born in the U.S. to native-born parents (third-generation). The goal of protecting communities can come at a hefty price tag, but are the concerns lawmakers raise based in truth…or scare tactics?


What Social Workers Can Do Moving Forward

As social workers, we have a commitment to social, economic, and political justice. SB4 presents an opportunity for social workers and others who share our values to begin the discourse on how we can increase public safety, community involvement, and public trust for all communities, while also respecting the human rights of individuals. Given the sharp divisions in this country on the issue of immigration, it is even more crucial now that we strategically devise advocacy efforts to bring the state of Texas and our nation together. There needs to be more advocacy not only in talking collectively to proponents and opponents of this bill but in listening, working together, and educating each other on our concerns and experiences.

Equally important, is the need to exercise keen discernment between opposing undocumented immigration and anti-immigrant sentiments. One can value “law and order” while also valuing the worth and dignity of people. In response to SB4, local community organizations plan to set up presentations like “Know Your Rights,” “Protect Yourself from Deportation,” and “Planning Ahead.” For those interested in helping populations that may be affected by SB4, we encourage you to get training in these areas and reach out to your local immigrant community and local law enforcement.




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About GCSW Legislative Interns

This blog is brought to you courtesy of The Graduate College of Social Work's Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. Student interns work as full-time staffers in the Legislature, either as policy analysts with the Legislative Study Group, a Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or in legislators’ offices. Here, they will share their unique experiences!
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3 Responses to Senate Bill 4- Impact, Implications, and Emotions

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