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State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, answers questions about HB767, dealing with Sanctuary Cities, which passed during legislative action on the House floor Wednesday.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

A proposed law to ban so-called sanctuary cities in Louisiana, branded as racially discriminatory by Democrats, stalled in a Louisiana Senate committee on Tuesday.

The sponsor of the bill, who is white – Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs – tried to defend her legislation from attacks of people characterizing it as racist by telling a committee with three black members that she, too, has been discriminated against because of her race. 

For the last two years, Hodges has passionately defended her measure to penalize sanctuary cities. But both years, the bills died in Senate committees controlled by Democrats after successfully advancing through the House.

Hodges and other proponents have argued the bills would improve local public safety and assist the federal government with national security by ensuring law enforcement can question people who may be in the country illegally. But opponents have questioned whether the bill unfairly targets New Orleans and whether it is a veiled effort to discriminate against immigrants.

While defending the proposal on Tuesday, Hodges assured the committee that the bill was not intended to be an attack on people of Hispanic descent. She said she spent 18 years as a missionary with her family in Mexico and is well-aware of how it feels to be discriminated against. 

"I understand what it is to be a minority. This is not about that. This is about public safety," she said. "I know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of your skin. But what we're seeing is a rise of people in this country illegally." 

She said every day that she lived in Mexico, she and her family were stopped by law enforcement officers who asked for their immigration papers. Her family knew that if they overstayed their visa by a single day they could be detained.

The point was not well received by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat from New Orleans. Peterson, who is black, said she is an American who is discriminated against because of the color of her skin routinely – in her own country. 

"Because I look the way I look, I have been discriminated against. And people in my family have been discriminated against, and many people who have come here, whether they came two or three generations ago, have been discriminated against," she said. "Whether you came to this country 300 years ago or if you came last week, most people just want opportunity and that slice of what we call the American dream."

House Bill 676 would have allowed the state Attorney General's Office to withhold state funds to municipalities and law enforcement agencies with "sanctuary city" policies that prevent local officials from cooperating with U.S. immigration authorities. President Donald Trump's administration has proposed a similar withholding of federal aid for cities with such policies.

It was unclear precisely what would constitute a sanctuary city under the definition in Hodges' bill. 

New Orleans officials have stressed that they are not a sanctuary city, and have had discussions with federal Department of Justice officials to ensure they're in compliance with federal laws.

Hodges has repeatedly said that law enforcement, under her bill, should be able to ask a lawfully arrested person about their immigration status. New Orleans police are barred from asking about immigration status, because of a federally mandated consent decree that governs their policies, which was crafted in conjunction with the Department of Justice during President Barack Obama's administration. 

New Orleans Sen. JP Morrell, another Democrat, also pointed out that no local law enforcement officers have expressed support of the bill and that New Orleans police officials were actively lobbying against it. He said that called into question the argument from supporters that this was a necessary tool to improve public safety. 

Peterson called for the bill to be deferred, effectively a rejection of the legislation, and no one on the committee objected.

Despite its conservative reputation, Louisiana remains one of the few Southern states that hasn't passed its own version of a sanctuary city ban. States such as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina have passed similar laws.

At the national level, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken aim at cities with friendly policies to undocumented immigrants. But last month, a federal district judge in San Francisco ruled that President Donald Trump's attempt to restrict federal dollars to cities that fail to cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities was illegal.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.