By Andy Ross
Killeen Daily Herald
The immigration issue is once again heating up in Texas now that legislation has emerged in the 82nd Legislature's special session that would prohibit so-called "sanctuary cities" and expand participation in a federal program targeting illegal immigrants.
While opposition is mounting from Democrats and Hispanic groups - as well as many local law enforcement leaders - authorities and elected officials in Bell County appear to support the legislation known as Senate Bill 9.
"The bottom line is that we are a nation of laws, and I believe criminal aliens should not be given any special consideration or safe haven because of our immigration sensitivities," said Killeen Police Department Chief Dennis Baldwin in a written response to questions this week.
SB 9, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, would require all jails and detention facilities in the state to participate in the Secure Communities program. The program, which is already in place in every county jail across the state, is led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Through cross-referencing the fingerprints of detained suspects with databases maintained by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Secure Communities is designed to quickly determine the legal and criminal background status of those arrested and whether they can be deported.
SB 9 also includes the controversial sanctuary cities provision, which would prohibit local governments from adopting policies that inhibit authorities from carrying out enforcement of federal immigration laws.
The definition of a sanctuary city is itself a murky thing, but has been used by some to describe larger cities in Texas such as Houston and San Antonio. In Bell County, there are no laws in place that restrict the ability of authorities to enforce immigration law, Sheriff Dan Smith said.
Smith said the impact of SB 9 as it relates to Secure Communities would be minimal. His department has been working with ICE since 2008, he said, and typically processes at least two inmates a day according to the guidelines of the federal program.
"It would be pretty seamless for us," Smith said. "They (ICE) monitor our booking reports and come on a daily basis already. There would be no additional work as I see it, at least on us."
Baldwin also said he was unconcerned. The KPD, he said, went online with the Secure Communities program in early 2010.
State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, is one of 19 co-authors of SB 9. Although Fraser supported House Bill 12 - a similar immigration bill that dealt with "sanctuary cities" but died during regular session - he said he is happier with the language that is in Williams' new bill.
"This bill is not going to place any additional burdens on county or city governments, or their law enforcement officers," Fraser said in a written statement. "It simply prohibits local governments from adopting ordinances that would restrict their police officers from working with ICE and other federal immigration authorities to enforce existing law."
But despite the support from those in Bell County, real concerns are being expressed among those in local law enforcement elsewhere. During committee hearings on HB 12 in May, for example, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and numerous others reportedly spoke against the legislation, saying the issue should be addressed at the federal level and not by city police forces.
On Friday, Kevin Lawrence, the executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, indicated he can see both sides of the issue.
"Local cops really don't want to enforce immigration laws," Lawrence said. "They don't want people to not be willing to come forward and talk to police officers because of their immigration status.
"However, ordering cops to never inquire about immigration status is not a good idea and disciplining cops about inquiring is not a good idea."
When asked about the concerns other police chiefs have expressed, Baldwin said he believes the bill has adequate safeguards to prevent abuses of power.
"I do not have any concerns as long as race, color, language or national origin is not used for the basis for the police stop," Baldwin said. "Since these prohibitions are already included in the bill, I think it is an effective way to identify and remove criminal aliens from our community."
Concerns that the proposed law would increase racial profiling, and by turn, mistrust of police officers within communities, are at the heart of the argument being made by groups such as the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.
Celia Cole, a senior policy analyst with the organization, said the hope was that Congress would pass immigration reform and help guide "common sense" principles down to the states.
In the absence of federal legislation, however, Cole said states such as Texas are attempting to tackle the issue through "piecemeal" approaches that would "scapegoat" immigrants.
"We knew in this session there would be a lot of anti-immigration legislation given the state of the economy," Cole said "It's very common for immigrants to be scapegoated when the economy goes bad."
Cole added, "When you invest local law enforcement with that authority, it leads to racial profiling and loss of trust in the community."
One of those closely attuned to the Hispanic community in Central Texas is Raul Villaronga, former mayor of Killeen and current president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Killeen chapter.
Villaronga said he questions the motivations of lawmakers who called for the legislation as an emergency item. He also noted the crackdown on immigration enforcement and the detainment of people solely for illegal entry is already under way. Such an approach has severe repercussions for many families, he said.
"When I see the results of this thing - causing kids who have been here for ages, who came here 'illegally' because their parents brought them when they were children and now we're penalizing them and deporting them to a country they've never lived in - to me that's sheer stupidity," Villaronga said.
Contact Andy Ross at email@example.com or (254) 501-7468. Follow him at Twitter at KDHeducation.