- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas Republicans were poised Wednesday to take a big step toward banning “sanctuary cities” in their state, debating a bill through which police chiefs and sheriffs could even be jailed for not cooperating fully with federal immigration authorities.

Democrats don’t have the votes in the Republican-controlled Legislature to stop the bill from going to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who made such a ban a priority. However, they vowed to fight it at every step, promising hours of emotionally charged debate on Wednesday before the Texas House votes.

Under the bill, the state could withhold funding from local governments for acting as sanctuary cities, even as the Trump administration’s efforts to do so nationally have hit roadblocks. Other Republican-controlled states have pushed for similar polices in recent years, just as more liberal ones have done the opposite. But Texas would be the first in which police chiefs and sheriffs could be jailed for not helping enforce immigration law. They could also lose their jobs.

The proposal is needed to “keep the public safe and remove bad people from the street,” said Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth.

“The bill does not target or discriminate against illegal immigrants. This bill specifically targets criminals who happen to be here illegally,” Geren said.

The term “sanctuary cities” has no legal definition, but Republicans want local police to help federal authorities as part of a larger effort to crack down on criminal suspects who are in the U.S. illegally. The Texas House bill would allow local law enforcement officers to inquire about federal immigration status if someone is arrested. A version passed by the state Senate in March would allow immigration inquires of anyone who is detained, including during traffic stops.

President Donald Trump is trying to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities, but on Tuesday a federal judge in California issued a preliminary injunction preventing him from doing so.

Texas doesn’t currently have any sanctuary cities, but that hasn’t stopped Abbott and Republican legislative leaders from pushing aggressively for a ban.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez of Travis County, which includes liberal Austin, enraged conservatives by refusing to honor federal requests to hold suspects for possible deportation if the suspects weren’t arrested for immigration offenses or serious crimes such as murder. But Hernandez softened her policy after Abbott cut funding to the county, saying decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, and she’s said she will conform to the state’s ban if it becomes law.

Fierce resistance has come from Texas Democrats and immigrants’ rights organizations, as well as from some in law enforcement and top business lobbies. Opponents say it opens the door to discrimination and intimidation. Many sheriffs and police chiefs in heavily Democratic areas warn that it would make their jobs harder if immigrant communities - including crime victims and witnesses - become afraid of the police.

“This is a show-me-your-papers law. This is what everybody’s afraid of,” said Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat from the border city of El Paso.

Though House Democrats don’t have the votes to block the bill, they planned to file enough challenges to force hours of debate.

“I have seen the fear of children who worry their parents are going to be deported,” said state Rep. Victoria Neave, of Dallas, who has staged a four-day fast to protest the bill.

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SCHOOL BUS SEAT BELTS

Thousands more Texas children could soon have seat belts on the buses they ride to school.

The state Senate voted 25-6 on Tuesday to approve legislation that would require all new school buses to come equipped with safety belts. The measure now heads to the Texas House.

It doesn’t include extra state funding to pay for seat belts and the bill’s author, Democratic Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, said schools districts can opt out if they can’t afford them.

Advocates say the bill is critical to ensuring students’ safety in crashes. Those opposed say installation is costly and schools could use that funding for other needs.

The state Legislature approved $10 million in grant funding for optional school bus seat belts in 2009, but a very small percentage of school districts installed them.

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CAMPUS SEXUAL ASSUALTS

In a push to combat campus sexual assault, the Texas Legislature is moving to pardon victims from criminal charges for underage drinking.

A bill passed unanimously Wednesday by the state Senate protects from prosecution victims of sexual assault who admit to underage drinking while they were being abused.

The victim must report the crime to a health professional, administrator, or to law enforcement for immunity. The bill now heads to the Texas House.

It’s one of several by Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson designed to increase campus sexual assault reporting rates. Another excuses victims and witnesses from being punished for underage drinking, and other violations, under university codes of conduct.

The effort follows a Baylor University scandal where many female students sued, saying they were bullied into keeping rapes secret.

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ON DECK

The House may go late into the night approving the “sanctuary cities” bill but still has a Thursday floor legislative calendar scheduled. Things are far quieter in the Senate, which reconvenes at 11 a.m. Thursday.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“This feels like a dark day in the House” - Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat and chairman of the House Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, referring to long and bitter debate in the chamber over the anti-sanctuary cities bill.

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