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Texas Mayors, Police Officials Speak Out Against Immigration Law While They Still Can

Renée Feltz

"Expecting local law enforcement to prioritize immigration efforts, without adequate funding or increased support from involved governmental agencies, will hinder an agency’s ability to focus its limited resources on the unique needs of the community it serves."

Read more of our coverage on SB 4 here.

An anti-“sanctuary cities” law in Texas penalizes police and elected officials who prioritize community safety over immigration enforcement. So they are voicing their opposition now, before the measure is set to take effect September 1.

“The law would allow state officials to fine, jail, and remove from office any elected or appointed official who limits cooperation with federal immigration officials,” wrote El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes on Monday. “My mother, for one, is worried that will be me.”

Reyes, whose small border town includes many residents who are undocumented or have undocumented family members, has argued the measure known as SB 4 creates “an environment of fear, and members of our community will no longer feel comfortable seeking city services or participating in civic life.”

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Since 1999, El Cenizo has barred officials from asking questions about residency status. But under Texas’ new law, police will now be allowed to question the immigration status of anyone they detain, even if the person is not under arrest. Authorities who advise their officers not to make such inquires can face Class A misdemeanor charges, and fines of up to $1,500 for the first violation, and $25,500 for each additional offense.

This comes after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott withheld $1.5 million in grants from the Travis County Sheriff’s Department in February after it began declining all federal “detainer” requests to hold immigrants in its jails unless they included warrants or court orders, or the person was charged with violent crimes such as murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human trafficking. Future refusals would prompt new sanctions under SB 4.

As Tina Vasquez reports, a federal judge heard arguments Monday about whether the law should be put on hold while it faces constitutional challenges from civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the border town of El Cenizo, and most major Texas cities, including San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas, and El Paso County.

“The federal government cannot take our police for themselves,” City of Houston attorney Collyn Peddie told the judge. “It’s up to them to hire ICE agents.”

Joining the cities in the lawsuit are Maverick County’s Sheriff Tom Schmerber, who spent 26 years working for the U.S. Border Patrol, and Constable Mario Hernandez. Their jurisdiction stretches 88 miles along the Texas border with Mexico and includes a population that is at least 95 percent Latino.

“SB4 will take away my ability to limit my deputies’ participation in immigration enforcement when I believe that resources should be focused on local priorities, such as answering calls for service and investigating and preventing violent and property crimes,” Sheriff Schmerber wrote in a declaration for the challenge.

Constable Hernandez added in a separate declaration that “SB 4 will interfere and create uncertainties” when he delivers and executes warrants and summons. “Based on my training and experience,” he wrote, “I believe this will also lead people to not comply with or otherwise avoid interaction with me for fear that they will be subject to immigration enforcement.”

Before SB 4 passed, police chiefs from Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio published their concerns in a Dallas Morning News op-ed, along with the Texas Police Chiefs Association.

“At a time of strained law enforcement budgets and critically low jail space, narrowing the focus to violent criminals, human traffickers, and members of organized crime syndicates is critical,” it read. “Expecting local law enforcement to prioritize immigration efforts, without adequate funding or increased support from involved governmental agencies, will hinder an agency’s ability to focus its limited resources on the unique needs of the community it serves.”

Officials also fear people who lack legal status, or live with loved ones who do, will report fewer crimes. In court on Monday, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal testified that fewer immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence have sought protection from abusers since immigration agents raided the county courthouse in February and detained a woman after she received a protective order.

This echoes concerns raised in April by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in the months following President Trump’s executive order signed on January 25, which instructs Immigration and Customs Enforcement to “not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement.”

Acevedo said the number of sexual assaults Latinos reported to his police department dropped nearly 43 percent in the first three months of 2017, compared to last year, and the number of robberies and aggravated assaults they reported fell by 13 percent. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has similarly said that sexual assaults reported by the city’s Latinos declined by 25 percent compared to last year.

“There appears to be … a chilling effect on Hispanic members of our communities reporting crimes at a lower rate,” said Chief Acevedo. “When you see this type of data, and what looks like the beginnings of people not reporting violent crime, we should all be concerned.”

When analysts at FiveThirtyEight examined data from Dallas police covering a similar time frame, they found a significant decline in overall crime reported in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

Gov. Abbott has dismissed concerns that immigrants in need of protection could be driven further into the shadows as “fear mongering.”

If you have not committed a crime, “you got nothing to be concerned about,” he told Univison.

But a new survey of attorneys and advocates in 48 states found that 78 percent answered yes to the question, “Are immigrant survivors [of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking] sharing with your agency that they have concerns about contacting police?”

“Clients are afraid of calling the police,” noted an anonymous respondent, “because they believe they will be deported if they do.”

After Monday’s hearing in San Antonio, the city’s mayor tweeted, “I listened to every word of testimony today. No one offered a single piece of evidence that #SB4 will make us safer.”

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