Raul A. Reyes: While supporters of SB 4 have presented it as a "law and order" measure, the reality is different; instead of making Texas safer, it will have the opposite effect
Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Sunday night, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took aim at the so-called “sanctuary cities” in his state by signing into law a measure passed by the state legislature last week. The problem is that it was a huge misfire. The new law, Senate Bill 4, allows local law enforcement officers to question almost anyone about their immigration status, and punishes state police officers and sheriffs who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
Under SB 4, Texas police will be able to ask anyone with whom they have an encounter about their immigration status; no arrest is necessary. This means that a traffic stop for speeding or even a jaywalking citation can become an opportunity for local police to ask Texas residents for proof of citizenship. Giving local police broad discretion to question people about their immigration status is a bad idea because the it opens the door widely to profiling and discrimination against Latinos, who comprise 39% of Texas’ population and are the largest minority group in the Lone Star State.
SB 4 also holds the potential to become a measure – like Arizona’s infamous “papers, please” law – that represents a new level of anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment. While Arizona’s law originally required local police to ask people their immigration status, Texas’ law allows them to do so. SB 4 gives local police a license to violate the civil rights of Latino legal residents and citizens, just because an officer might think that they “look undocumented” – whatever that means.
Texas police officers and sheriffs should not have to serve as de facto immigration agents, which amounts to a diversion of time, money, and manpower away from their core responsibility of protecting their communities. Nor should police officers in Texas have to choose between complying with SB 4 or violating anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
While supporters of SB 4 have presented it as a “law and order” measure, the reality is different. Instead of making Texas safer, it will have the opposite effect. The Texas Major Cities Chiefs, the Texas Police Chiefs Association, and sheriffs from the state’s largest cities all oppose SB 4. They recognize that the new law will make their job harder, because undocumented immigrants and those with undocumented family members will be wary of interacting with law enforcement due to fears of detention or deportation. Undocumented immigrants will not want to come forward as witnesses to crime, or report incidents of domestic abuse. Already, Houston police have seen a 43% drop in the number of rape cases reported by Latino residents, a development attributed to fears of law enforcement under the Trump administration. SB 4 will make such fears worse.
Those (including Gov. Abbott) who tout SB 4 as a measure for public safety should consider that last month, sheriffs of five Texas counties penned a joint op-ed in The San Antonio Express-News in which they condemned the law as “anti-immigrant grandstanding.” They noted that research shows that sanctuary cities are safer than non-sanctuary cities, and that immigrants –including the undocumented – are associated with lower levels of crime than the native-born.
Incredibly, in addition to making law enforcement officers’ jobs more difficult, SB 4 threatens them with jail time, fines, and official misconduct charges if they do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement actions. But immigration enforcement is the job of the federal government, not local police. One reason that President Trump’s recent anti-sanctuary cities measure was blocked was because a federal judge ruled that the federal government may not coerce states into doing something that is its own responsibility.
True, it is important that local police cooperate with federal authorities in combating crime. However, Texas police and sheriffs already do so; among other things, they work with the feds to fight gangs and cartels. If immigration agents obtain a judicial warrant or file criminal charges against a suspected undocumented immigrant, Texas police will arrest them. In fact, between 2014 and 2016, Texas fulfilled 35,632 of the 58,452 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests it received – more than any other state, according to statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
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Gov. Abbott may well regret signing SB 4 into law. Arizona’s “papers, please” law led to unflattering national attention, protests, and tourism boycotts that cost the state millions. Why Texas would want to go down a similar path is mystifying. Not only was Arizona’s measure mostly rejected by the Supreme Court, it branded the state as intolerant and hostile toward Latinos. If nothing else, Texas can now count on expensive lawsuits challenging SB 4 in court.
Texas’ SB 4 is mean-spirited, divisive, and potentially discriminatory. It represents government-sanctioned fear-mongering – not American values.