The Business Lobby Surrenders on Sanctuary Cities
Five years after killing an anti-immigration bill, Texas businesses are now focused on bathrooms.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was originally published, Governor Gregg Abbott has signed the sanctuary cities bill into law.
Five years ago, on the first day of the 2011 legislative session, then-Governor Rick Perry declared that Texas had to urgently eliminate “sanctuary cities,” promoting aggressive policing of undocumented immigrants. Perry had made sanctuary cities an issue in his re-election campaign the previous year against Houston Mayor Bill White. Perry claimed Houston was a sanctuary city because police were not allowed to ask someone about immigration status unless that person was actually under arrest.
Perry closed his campaign with a television commercial featuring African-American Houston police officer Joslyn Johnson, who blamed the city’s policies for the murder of her husband by an undocumented immigrant who had been in police custody multiple times. When Perry made his case to the Legislature during the 2011 session, Johnson joined the governor on the House dais. “Texas law enforcement professionals must have the discretion to use their judgment, judgment honed by years of training and experience, when it comes to inquiring about immigration status during lawful detentions and apprehensions,” Perry said in his State of the State address. “Thank you, Sergeant Johnson, for being here and for your grace and courage in these difficult times.”
Legislation to empower Texas police to ask people about their residence status passed the House after an emotional debate and was pending in the Senate. Then two major businesses—Bob Perry home-builders and H-E-B groceries—stepped forward to kill the sanctuary cities legislation. In just two days of intervention, the bill was dead. Since that time, Texas businesses have fought to protect undocumented immigrants and the so-called state Dream Act that allows undocumented children who graduated from a Texas high school to pay in-state college tuition.
This year, Governor Greg Abbott has made passage of a sanctuary city bill again an emergency priority for the Legislature. The Senate and House expanded the bill beyond Abbott’s original scope to include language allowing police officers to ask for papers any time they detain an individual. It passed the House last week after another emotional and contentious debate. The Senate on Wednesday concurred to House amendments and sent the bill to Abbott for his consideration.
The difference this time is that Texas business has been all but absent from the debate. Instead, the focus for big business has been on blocking the so-called bathroom bill that would discriminate against transgender people. Five years ago, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community could hardly get the time of day out of Texas businesses, much less support. Business in Texas is fighting for the LGBT community while almost surrendering on sanctuary cities. “They’ve been unable to fight a two-front war,” said state Representative Rafael Anchia, chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. “There really was a lackluster response.” Only after it was too late to affect the Legislature, state business leaders called a news conference for Thursday to oppose Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities bill.
The Texas Association of Business opposed sanctuary cities bills in previous legislative sessions, but President Chris Wallace admitted to me that there just hasn’t been the same push among his members this year as there was in 2011 to oppose the sanctuary cities bill. “A lot of people don’t understand the sanctuary cities bill,” Wallace said. “We think it could have a negative impact on the economy. It’s a tough issue that a lot of people don’t understand. There’s a lot of mixed messages about what is a sanctuary city.”
What businesses do understand is that when North Carolina last year passed legislation limiting bathroom access to a person’s birth gender, there was a national backlash. Performers declared North Carolina off limits. Major corporations decided against business expansion. And collegiate sports declared there would be no playoff games in North Carolina, an important factor for Texans looking forward to the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio next year. North Carolina eventually passed compromise legislation to defuse the controversy. A bathroom bill is out of the Texas Senate, and legislation is pending in the House State Affairs Committee.
When business stepped up to block the sanctuary city legislation in 2011, similar boycott threats against Arizona were fresh news. Arizona in 2010 had passed a bill mandating that police stop individuals and ask for their papers. A Rasmussen Reports poll at the time found 60 percent of Americans in favor of allowing police to “stop and verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant.” A Gallup Poll found 51 percent of Americans in favor of the law. There were major marches against the law, but efforts to boycott the state failed. Major League Baseball refused to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix, and singer Elton John broke a performer boycott, declaring: “We are all very pleased to be playing in Arizona. I have read that some of the artists won’t come here. They are [expletive]wits! Let’s face it: I still play in California, and as a gay man I have no legal rights whatsoever. So what’s the [expletive] with these people?”
The Arizona controversy is now old news. The state and activists last year reached a lawsuit settlement that removed the requirement for police to ask for citizenship status but gave law enforcement the power to ask the question so long as it did not prolong a detention. Additionally, Republican Donald Trump made immigrants a scapegoat in his presidential campaign last year for economic woes in some parts of the country and portrayed immigrants as “bad hombres” who commit crimes in the United States. That change in atmosphere just cannot be denied.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the business community was ambivalent about gay rights issues. In fighting for the right to same-sex marriage, the LGBT community built itself into a political force at the ballot box. At the same time, businesses began to understand that appearing to be progressive and inclusive was good for their brand and their bottom lines. And above all else, business respects money.
While the sanctuary cities bill can affect family relationships in the Hispanic community and raises the specter of racial profiling, the undocumented community in many ways is unable to turn its economic clout as labor into a political strength because any activism risks deportation. Undocumented labor’s economic clout is powerful, though. Immigrants sent $2.4 billion in remittances to Mexico in 2014, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. That’s money Mexican laborers in Texas have earned above and beyond their own living expenses. They work in construction, agriculture, and the hospitality industry of hotels and restaurants.
At the moment, the home-building industry is feeling a pinch because many undocumented workers went back to Mexico during the economic downturn. The Dallas Morning News recently reported the city’s housing construction is the hottest in the nation. “Dallas is undersupplied by 10,000 to 20,000 construction workers,” Scott Davis, with housing analyst Meyers Research, told a meeting of local builders. “We should have about 99,000 people employed in the building industry.” And these missing workers, are mostly Mexicans. “Texas has been a job magnet for immigrants because of close ties with Mexico and the amount of work available. But the flow of people has slowed significantly—first, as a result of the housing bust and deep recession, and more recently with the focus on immigration laws and border security.”
In 2011 Houston home-builder Perry, who has since died, was motivated to keep construction workers in Texas, and the sanctuary city legislation threatened to make them flee. But Mexico’s economy recovered from the recession faster than the U.S. economy, wages have grown there, and it is unlikely that many will be lured back to the United States anytime soon. From reading various reports, my best guess is about 200,000 Mexicans have returned to their native land from Texas in the past several years.
The politics are different too. The term “sanctuary city” came on the scene in 1985 and was meant to offer sanctuary to immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where death squads were murdering thousands of people. The immigrants could not obtain asylum in the U.S. unless they could prove that violence was specifically targeted at them. The concept of sanctuary cities largely died out after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted legal residency to about half the four million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Attacks on the concept of sanctuary cities renewed around 2006 after the flood of economic immigrants from Mexico. President George W. Bush had appealed to Hispanics in his 2000 campaign for president with the phrase: “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” Bush in his second term pushed for immigration reform that included a path to citizenship, but many conservatives believed the 1986 law signed by President Reagan amounted to an amnesty that did nothing to slow the influx.
Heading into the 2008 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney accused party rival Rudy Giuliani, now an immigration hawk, of having presided over a sanctuary city as the mayor of New York. When Texas Governor Rick Perry started thinking about running for president in 2011, he also became an immigration hawk. It’s no small irony that his campaign fell apart when Romney and other Republican opponents attacked him signing the Texas Dream Act. Perry responded by saying if you don’t believe in educating children, “I don’t think you have a heart.” Perry’s campaign started collapsing the very next day.
Since that time, tough-on-immigration rhetoric has become a litmus test in Republican primaries across the nation. That was only heightened by President Trump’s presidential campaign promises to deport undocumented immigrants and build a border wall. President Trump has made one major policy change on immigration so far: Previously, the immigration policy under President Obama was to start deportation proceedings against individuals who had been convicted of crime, while the Trump administration now allows ICE to seize an individual after only an arrest, whether the crime is major or minor.
Texas law enforcement agencies in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio have opposed the Legislature’s sanctuary city bill because it means the immigrant population will be less willing to report crime or serve as witnesses. Also, the mere fact an immigrant is arrested for a crime does not mean that person will be automatically turned over to federal authorities for deportation. As of December 31, 2016, ICE had detainers on 8,923 inmates in the Texas prison system.
Unlike the original Arizona law, Texas law enforcement officers will not be required to ask for citizenship status when they stop someone, but law enforcement agencies will not be able to prevent that from happening, either. At a news conference this week, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said that policy will keep him from properly directing his officers.
“We cannot prohibit officers from doing what they want to do in regard to immigration enforcement, which means that small percent of our officers who decide to become ICE agents and want to stop a jaywalker and they start asking for their papers, I as a chief can’t do anything to explain to that officer, ‘Hey, we’ve got calls for service backed up. We’re taking five or six minutes to get to armed robberies, home invasion robberies, kidnappings. We’ve got MS-3 running around and you want to go play ICE agent with the day laborers?’”
Five years is a pretty short time for state business leaders to change their attitudes on fighting against sanctuary city legislation while opposing the bathroom bill for the LGBT community. San Antonio may get its Final Four tournament, but at what cost?