Houston and Dallas law enforcement officials said Monday that they oppose legislation that would free up officers in so-called sanctuary cities to ask about the immigration status of anyone pulled over during a traffic stop, questioned as a witness or otherwise detained.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland Jr. and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez testified at a Senate hearing that the immigration bill the Legislature is likely to approve could make immigrants afraid to report crimes and cause the further crowding of jails.
"Jails should have the room for people we are afraid of, not the people we are upset with," Valdez said.
Gov. Rick Perry added immigration enforcement measures to the call of the Legislature's special session last week and the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee held a public hearing on Monday.
The bill would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from adopting policies to bar officers from asking people they pull over or otherwise detain whether they are in the country legally. Agencies that adopted such policies would lose access to state grants.
None of Texas' major cities claims to be a sanctuary city, but many police departments discourage their officers from asking about immigration status.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said police take an oath to uphold the law, both federal and state, and should be freed up to ask about detainees' immigration status because they could catch criminals or aspiring terrorists who slipped into the country.
The bill sends "a loud and clear message to criminal aliens that we will not tolerate their presence in Texas," Williams said.
Monday's hearing was packed with opponents of the bill, who argue that police authority to detain someone is too vague and will lead to racial profiling against Latinos and the further distrust of police among immigrant communities.
"You get a climate of fear," said Olga Garza Kaufman, of San Antonio, who was born in Mexico and later moved to Texas with her family. "My parents were perfectly legal, but they were afraid of police. That's what happens when you have a culture that does not value its immigrants."
Senate Democrats have fiercely opposed the bill and were able to block it during the regular session. But Republicans hold overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate and voting rules that helped Democrats block the bill wouldn't apply in the special session, clearing the way for the bill's likely passage.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, suggested it would be unlikely that a white woman with blonde hair and light eyes, such as herself, would be asked about her immigration status during a traffic stop.
McClelland estimated it would cost his department more than $4 million to train 5,000 Houston police on immigration matters and Valdez estimated it would cost her jail an extra $467,000 a month to house immigration violators until they are picked up by federal immigration officers.
Republican committee members tried to rally support for the bill, arguing that it allows but does not mandate immigration status checks and that it wouldn't go as far as other states have in trying to enforce immigration in public schools, rental housing and other areas.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, noted that Texas allows illegal immigrants who graduate high school in the state to pay in-state tuition to public universities.
Perry and Senate Republicans have argued that the federal immigration enforcement has failed and that Texas must protect its own borders.
"We go above and beyond," Shapiro said. "There are states all over this country are putting these harsh immigration laws in place in sheer frustration that the federal government has turned a blind eye."