Gov. Rick Perry offered no clues Wednesday on how Texas might abolish "sanctuary cities" that he says provide haven for illegal immigrants, after ordering the new GOP-dominated Legislature to make the issue a top priority.
Perry didn't get into details on how Texas should correct a "number of cities" he said are in conflict with state and federal immigration laws. He said writing a bill on the second day of a new session was premature, and didn't give an answer when asked whether he wants local police officers to question people about their immigration status during traffic stops.
"I don't know yet," Perry said. "We'll write the legislation over the next 140 days."
Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, later sought to clarify that comment, saying Perry wants to stop cities from taking away the discretion officers have to enforce certain laws. Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, has long been assailed by conservatives as a place that protects illegal immigrants because the city's police officers generally don't ask about citizenship during patrols or investigations.
Perry, when pressed about Houston on Wednesday, said residents there realize the city has some "policies in place that are inappropriate." He didn't name other sanctuary cities in Texas when asked.
Houston has bristled at the "sanctuary city" label. Mayor Annise Parker, speaking to reporters in Houston after Perry's comments, said her city's policies for police are the same ones followed by state troopers. She said she wasn't aware of a sanctuary city anywhere in Texas.
"We are going to continue doing what we do, and we believe common sense will prevail in Austin," Parker said.
Texas opened a new legislative session Tuesday with a historic GOP 101-49 supermajority in the House, meaning Republicans in that chamber can pass legislation with no Democratic support. Perry got thing started by designating sanctuary cities one of two emergency items for lawmakers. That puts the issue on the legislative fast track, whereas dozens of anti-illegal immigration bills in previous sessions withered quickly.
"There are cities in this state that have made decisions that they're going to be havens for those that are in conflict with federal immigration laws or state laws, and we're going to prohibit that," Perry said. "We'll have a good and open discussion about what we're going to prohibit."
Democrats say they've identified at least 40 bills targeting illegal immigration this session. The proposals include requiring local law enforcement to ask anyone without ID during a legal traffic stop whether they're in the country legally. Another would require school districts to identify students who are illegal immigrants.
Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic caucus, said Perry putting sanctuary cities on top of lawmakers' to-do list is another sign of the momentum behind illegal immigration proposals in Texas.
"I figured that one out on election night," said Van De Putte, referring to sweeping GOP gains in November.
But Van De Putte said she is waiting to see how "sanctuary cities" are defined before commenting on the push to pass a bill. She is opposed to measures she believes would complicate the job of police officers if people in the community, including illegal immigrants, were reluctant to come forward with information about crimes.
Arizona passed the toughest state anti-immigration laws in the nation last year. It requires police officers, when enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. Perry has said he doesn't support Texas passing an identical measure but has lauded the state for taking the matter into its own hands.
In Houston, Parker said her problem with Arizona-style laws is that it gives too much discretion to officers on the street in determining who might be here legally and who isn't. Parker said 20 percent of her city's population wasn't born in America, and that she wasn't just referring to Hispanics born elsewhere.
"Are we as Americans willing to carry and display, for any police officer who wants to stop us, something that proves that we were born here and have the right to be here?" she said.
Perry has not mentioned any specific bill since declaring sanctuary cities a priority. But one that seems to closely match his comments is Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle's bill that would deny state funding to local governments that do not enforce immigration laws.
Riddle, of suburban Houston, has long been one of the loudest anti-illegal immigration voices in the Capitol. She found Perry's prioritizing validating.
"This is the United States of America. Not the United States of Luby's," said Riddle, referring to a popular cafeteria-style Texas restaurant chain. "We cannot just pick and choose the laws that we want to enforce. We cannot pick and choose the laws we want to respect."