Pressure from conservatives is mounting for Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special legislative session and address sanctuary cities.
The term sanctuary cities typically describes local governments that forbid police from asking about a person’s immigration status.
Supporters of banning sanctuary cities say the policies to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration endangers residents and prevents law enforcement from doing its job. Opponents believe a change of policy would lead to an increase in racial profiling and drain law enforcement resources.
Last week Abbott issued a strongly worded letter to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, instructing her to reverse her policy of refusing automatic detention of all criminal immigrants in conjunction with the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s federal detainer program, which is designed to prevent dangerous criminals from being released into communities.
Abbott maintained he’s committed to ensuring Texas cities enforce the rule of law when it comes to illegal immigrants. But he said it would take time and an even more conservative Texas Legislature.
“It came up during the session, and it didn’t have enough votes to pass during the session,” he said at a Bastrop fundraiser Tuesday night. “There are going to be several open seats during the course of the election cycle, and we need to put people into office who will support my plan to ensure we end sanctuary cities in Texas.”
The Texas House approved legislation that would have prohibited cities from ignoring laws and cut state funding for violations during the most recent session. But the bill failed in the Senate by one vote.
Political analyst Harvey Kronberg said pressure directed at Abbott has ratcheted up during the past few weeks. Kronberg said illegal immigration and border security continue to be the top priority among GOP base voters in polls.
While Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made illegal immigration and ending sanctuary cities centerpieces of their respective agendas, Abbott chose other hot policy topics, such as state Planned Parenthood funding.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the president of the Texas Senate, released a statement applauding Abbott’s letter and alluded to there being enough votes now to pass legislation.
“As I stated on Aug. 5, I now believe the Senate has the votes to pass a prohibition on sanctuary cities, and we will pass this legislation out of the Texas Senate as soon as possible,” he said.
Patrick added he would ask Abbott to add sanctuary cities as an emergency item during the next session.
Conservatives championing illegal immigration reacted in turn with calls for a special session.
“There is clearly a concerted effort to make Abbott look weak (on illegal immigration),” Kronberg said. “Business and law enforcement don’t want the Legislature to address (sanctuary cities), but primary voters do and adversaries sense weakness.”
The timing and tenor of Abbott’s posturing on sanctuary cities raised conservative eyebrows.
JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America – We the People, said Abbott is playing a political game with Texans’ safety. She said Abbott is talking tough but not acting.
“We’re not talking about toll roads,” she said. “This is a matter of public safety and national security. It’s not a political football.”
Mrs. Fleming said Abbott could take action by calling a special session or by issuing an executive order, if he was serious about stopping cities from following policy counter to state and federal law.
She believes a special session would result in a different outcome than in the legislative session. Mrs. Fleming said the Department of Public Safety’s threat assessment identifies clear dangers to the public associated with illegal crossings, including strengthening of transnational gang networks within Texas cities and human and drug trafficking.
James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin, said the pressure is coming from tea party activists and won’t sway Abbott. But the tension identifies an internal conflict within grassroots conservatives and establishment-business interest factions within the Republican Party, he said.
“Conservatives are outwardly frustrated with what they perceive as elected leaders not delivering on promises,” he said. “That puts statewide (elected officials) in a difficult situation, because you’re talking about motivated primary voters.”
Henson said GOP legislators invested significant money - more than $800 million in additional funding - to address border security, but it doesn’t appear to be enough. He said the concept of sanctuary cities has been around for decades but has become a symbol among conservatives for broken promises by state leaders since 2010, when Gov. Rick Perry made it a campaign issue.
In the 2011 session, it was House members who blocked passage of legislation similar to the bill blocked by the Senate this past session.
“That’s the ’ol Texas two-step,” said Dale Huls, a member of the Clear Lake Tea Party and Texas Border Volunteer. “We keep hearing ‘next election, next session,’ so it’s starting to feel like we’re being played.”
Huls said the blockades protected the interests of big Texas businesses that benefit from illegal immigration.
Huls said Abbott’s letter to Ms. Valdez might have been directed at her publicly ignoring state and federal laws but that it was a “created crisis” designed to stir the electorate and raise campaign money. He said Abbott made sanctuary cities his issue by taking such a strong stand but that not taking executive action shows he’s not genuinely concerned.
“If you truly feel the way he describes it, wouldn’t you want to do something now?” Huls asked. “Every infraction beyond this point is on his head. It’s his issue.”
Huls said additional money and even Gov. Perry’s placement of Texas Guard troops along the border were effective for campaigns and not real solutions. He said grassroots and conservative email threads have been alive with discussions about an alternative to Abbott in the next election cycle.
Conservatives want legislators to move the ball forward on immigration, Huls said, adding there is room for discussion among conservatives regarding compassionate legal immigration and addressing predatory and criminal elements profiting from illegal immigration.
“For the people who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families and join the melting pot, let’s bring them in the right way,” Huls said. “There’s nothing compassionate about how things are right now, for Texans or for illegal immigrants who are being preyed upon.”