Louisiana Senate committee delays action on ‘sanctuary cities’ bill _lowres

Attorney General Jeff Landry and Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, testified in May 2016 in favor of legislation that seeks to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” that have policies favorable to illegal immigrants.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

Bucking the trend of its conservative Southern peers, the Louisiana House on Tuesday rejected a proposed law that would have banned Sanctuary Cities and allowed the state Attorney General's office to withhold state funds to local departments found to be in violation. 

While the measure had a majority of support from House members, the bill required two-thirds approval because it included a civil penalty of $1,000 to $5,000 per day to be imposed on departments or cities that were found to be in violation of the Sanctuary City ban. The House voted 64-32, which was just six votes shy of the required super majority.

House Bill 676's sponsor, State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, called the proposed law a common sense bill that puts Louisiana in line with other states who are cracking down on people who are in the country illegally and committing crimes against Americans. 

"It's time for us to put Americans and America first," she said, echoing the Trump administration, which has taken aim at undocumented immigrants. She pointed out that just Monday the Texas governor signed a bill into law penalizing Sanctuary Cities, and many other Southern states such as Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina have passed similar laws. 

Opponents representing New Orleans pointedly attacked the bill, saying it encouraged racial profiling of Hispanic people. They also criticized Hodges' rhetoric describing recent violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. 

"I'm disturbed by the testimony offered about all the horrible things these people have done," said House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. "But no one mentions the fact that after many of our natural disasters a number of these people stepped up to rebuild the communities and no one asked them about their immigration status when they showed up with a hammer and nails." 

Hodges' bill aimed to define so-called "Sanctuary Cities," a term that is broadly assigned across the country, but lacks a legal definition. 

Her bill defined a sanctuary city as a state agency or political subdivision that enacts or adopts policies which "discourages enforcement of federal immigration laws or prohibits a law enforcement officer from communicating or cooperating with federal authorities concerning the immigration status of any person lawfully arrested within the state of Louisiana."

Specifically, she said municipalities and police departments should not refuse to ask about immigration status to people who are lawfully arrested. In New Orleans, law enforcement officers are expressly prohibited from asking witnesses, suspects and victims about immigration status – a policy that is spelled out in a federal consent decree which governs its operations. Cities in violation can have their state dollars withheld and would be assessed daily penalties.

Reps. Gary Carter and Helena Moreno, both D-New Orleans, tried to corner Hodges into explaining who specifically would be asked about their immigration status. 

"Maybe the key thing would be if they don't speak English," Hodges responded. 

Moreno said she was concerned that it opened the door for racial profiling.

"I worry that American citizens who may not be from this country, but who are American citizens, will be profiled and asked their immigration status based on the way they look or if they have an accent," Moreno said. 

Hodges said the discretion would be left up to law enforcement professionals. 

Last year, a similar bill got further through the Legislative process, winning approval from the House only to be killed in the Senate. But last year, the House only required a simple majority for approval because it did not include the civil penalty. 

Just 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.