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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: 'Sanctuary' law won't open the door for racial profiling

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks on the first day of the 85th Legislature on January 10, 2017. (Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune)

by Alex Samuels | The Texas Tribune

Following the signing of a controversial “sanctuary cities” ban last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that the law would not open the door for people to get “pulled over and detained.”

Speaking to reporters after a ceremony honoring fallen peace officers, Abbott aimed to shut down concerns that Senate Bill 4 amounted to "show-me-your-papers"-type legislation that will allow police to inquire about a person's immigration status during the most routine exchanges, including traffic stops.

“As a person whose family is made up of Hispanics, I want to make sure no one who is Hispanic gets detained inappropriately,” Abbott said, referring to his wife and in-laws. “All these comments made about being pulled over and detained are absolutely false.”

Abbott signed the sanctuary ban into law last Sunday, putting the final touch on legislation that would also allow police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain or arrest.

Senate Bill 4 makes sheriffs, constables, police chiefs and other local leaders subject to Class A misdemeanor charges if they don’t cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates who are subject to deportation. It also provides civil penalties for entities in violation of the provision that begin at $1,000 for a first offense and climb to as high as $25,500 for each subsequent infraction. The bill also applies to public colleges.

The final version of the bill included a controversial House amendment that allows police officers to question a person’s immigration status during a detainment — perhaps including traffic stops — as opposed to being limited to a lawful arrest. It has drawn fierce opposition from Democrats and immigrants rights groups, who are already gearing up for a legal battle against the law. The American Civil Liberties Union cited the bill in issuing a Texas “travel advisory.”

But during a floor debate before the measure was finally approved by the Senate, the bill's author, state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said that the bill doesn't require that officers ask a person's immigration status. However the language does leave the door wide open for officers to make such inquiries if they feel the need during routine stops.

“If you are not someone who has committed a crime, you have absolutely nothing to worry about,” Abbott said Tuesday. “There are laws against racial profiling, and those laws will be strictly enforced.” His comments appeared to reference a section of the bill that states police may not consider “race, color, or language” among other things, while enforcing immigration laws.

Despite threats of lawsuits against SB 4, Abbott has defended the legality of the law, saying key parts of it have "already been tested at the United States Supreme Court and approved there.”

In an exclusive interview with Breitbart following the signing of SB 4, Abbott also said the Texas measure is different from an Arizona law that requires police officers to check immigration status on people they encounter. The Texas law “allows officers to check” the immigration status, but it’s not required. Abbott said that provision has been tested and upheld legally.

The proposal was one of Abbott's priorities; he listed it as one of four emergency items at the start of the legislative session, and it is the first of the four to reach his desk.

After Tuesday's event, the governor also said he was “pleased to predict” that his other three priorities would get passed this session as well. He also said that the “bathroom bill” and property tax relief reform bill were additional priorities he hoped to get signed into law.

Julian Aguilar contributed to this report.

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