The Obama administration’s 2014 switch to a less aggressive approach to working with local jails on immigration enforcement poses a quandary for Texas lawmakers wishing to ban so-called sanctuary cities.

At a Tuesday hearing of a state Senate committee tasked with studying border issues, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said that the federal policy shift, which targets only high-level offenders rather than all inmates suspected of being in the country illegally, in effect might have made Texas — and every other state — a “sanctuary state.”

“Texas would not be inherently making a decision to be a sanctuary state, but … from a functional perspective, we would be behaving as if we were a sanctuary state,” Birdwell, who heads the panel, said of a scenario in which immigrants without legal status are allowed to walk out of a state prison because they didn’t commit a crime serious enough to trigger federal intervention.

Additionally, the change allows county officials who don’t want to participate in strict immigration enforcement to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement without helping the agency deport low-level offenders.

The change further complicates the already difficult process of identifying sanctuary cities ahead of next year’s legislative battle.

Republicans in the Legislature have vowed to pass legislation next year to prohibit cities and counties from adopting “sanctuary” policies, a nebulous term that refers to jurisdictions that refuse in some way to participate in federal efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. One way cities can do so is to decline to honor federal requests to extend the detention of inmates suspected of lacking legal immigration status to facilitate deportation proceedings.

Jeh Johnson, secretary of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, in November 2014 announced that the administration was discontinuing the 8-year-old Secure Communities program, which allowed the federal government to seize from local jails any inmate suspected of being in the country illegally. Authorities replaced Secure Communities with the Priority Enforcement Program, which targets only those convicted of felonies or multiple misdemeanors.

The change has led to a 50 percent decline in detention requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to local jails, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration policy.

“There’s no logical reason to allow someone who is here in the country illegally and involved in crimes to stay here,” Vaughan said at the hearing. “There are tens of thousands of criminal aliens who are slipping between the cracks.”

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, a Republican, also said she has seen a 50 percent decline in the federal requests. Asked by senators if she believes the policy shift has made Bexar County less safe, Pamerleau said she didn’t know.

Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, a Democrat, testified that if county officials focus on illegal immigration efforts, there are fewer resources available for local law enforcement priorities. He also said that local efforts on immigration enforcement can also hurt community cooperation with deputies and officers. “This is a federal responsibility,” Martinez said.

One sheriff not at the hearing was Dallas County’s Lupe Valdez, who drew the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott in October after she said she would review ICE detention requests on a case-by-case basis. Valdez has said Dallas isn’t a sanctuary county and has noted that her office has never denied a detention request because her priorities in aiding immigration efforts align with those of the Priority Enforcement Program.

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