Legislation

Sanctuary cities bill puts Texas county in tight spot

A controversial sanctuary cities crackdown awaiting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature could put one county in particular in a tough spot, thanks to an obscure legal settlement from a decade ago.

Abbott is poised to sign SB4, which prohibits local cities and counties from making “sanctuary” laws that bar local law enforcement officers from inquiring about immigration status and cooperating with federal officials.

The potential quagmire for El Paso County stems from a 2006 settlement with a man who said his FourthAmendment rights were violated when he was held by an El Paso sheriff’s deputy against his will.

Carl Starr claimed he was on a bus that was pulled over by the deputy for 30 minutes. During the stop, Starr said the deputy asked passengers about their immigration status and arrested a few who could not show papers.

“I didn’t feel I was free to go and I wanted to go about my business. And I felt it was a racial profiling stop,” Starr said.

El Paso County denied the claims and settled with Starr for $500 plus attorney’s fees.

But as a result of the settlement, the county also made a new policy that prohibits deputies from enforcing federal immigration law. The county also agreed to provide training for officers to understand the limits of their authority regarding civil immigration law enforcement.

Assistant El Paso County Attorney Christina Sanchez testified before the Senate Committee on StateAffairs in February that SB4 would force the county to choose between following the law or following the settlement. Starr told Fox News and the county he will sue if the settlement is broken.

“The federal government’s supposed to do its job. It has the money, it should go get judicial warrants and not be burdening these counties,” Starr said.

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the settlement will not and cannot affect El Paso’s compliance with the law.

In a letter to the Senate Committee on State Affairs leader Joan Huffman, Paxton wrote that the settlement was an agreement between two parties, not a judgment by the court, and argued two parties cannot agree to trump state law. Paxton also wrote that the settlement prevents deputies from enforcing immigration law, while SB4 only requires that they cooperate with immigration authorities.

El Paso Sheriff’s Office Commander Robert Flores said there is a difference between enforcement and cooperation.

“The enforcement side, you’re going to have people that are actually taken into custody for the purpose of determining their national origin,” Flores said.

Flores said cooperation is only allowing ICE to investigate someone who’s already in custody for another legitimate crime. He said the El Paso Sheriff’s office will not stand in the way of federal detainers.

Law enforcement officers and elected officials who do not comply with SB4 could face big fines and even jail time. Senate Bill 4 has received mixed reviews from lawmakers, law enforcement and advocacy groups.

“There is no excuse for endangering our communities by allowing criminal aliens who have committed a crime to go free. SB 4 will ensure that no liberal local official can flaunt the law,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patricksaid.

But county commissioners in El Paso County see it differently.

“I believe that it’s a bill that looks for a solution to a problem that’s non-existent,” said Democratic Commissioner David Stout.

“I’m not really for it, not really against it. I think it’s one of those bills that, true or untrue, creates a misconception, at least in this area, that police are going to be against some citizens,” said Republican Commissioner Andrew Haggerty.

Many advocacy groups in El Paso have also spoke out against the bill, saying it will make immigrants fear law enforcement.

Anai Ramirez, with the Hope Border Institute, said the community has a strong relationship with federal law enforcement in El Paso, and they’re optimistic it will stay that way. 

El Paso County is working with an outside law firm to develop a lawsuit against the bill. Sources with the county would not go into specifics but said they would likely challenge the constitutionality of the law and try to prove they’d suffer damages as a result of trying to comply with both the law and settlement. 

 

Ray Bogan is a Fox News multimedia reporter based in El Paso, Texas. Follow him on twitter: @RayBogan