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Released 12 June 2017  By Jonathan Blitzer - The New Yorker


Jonathan Blitzer - The New Yorker
JUNE 2, 2017

Last month, Greg Abbott, the Republican Governor of Texas, signed into law
an anti-immigrant measure allowing local police officers to ask for the
citizenship status of anyone they detain. This sort of provision—often
called a “show me your papers” law—has been attempted at the state level
before, most notoriously in Arizona, which passed a measure in 2010 that
was subsequently blocked in federal court. In response to the new law,
civil-rights groups and several Texas city governments have filed lawsuits
against the measure. Earlier this week, thousands of demonstrators
descended on the state capitol, in Austin, to protest on the last day of
the legislative session, prompting one overwhelmed Republican
representative to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),
presumably so that agents could arrest and deport members of the
opposition while they stood in a gallery of the statehouse.

Texas’s law, known as Senate Bill 4 (S.B. 4), is in some ways even harsher
than the one Arizona passed seven years ago: the new measure allows state
authorities to punish any police chief or sheriff who tells his or her
subordinates not to act as de-facto immigration agents. Violators face
steep fines (a thousand dollars for the first offense and up to
twenty-five thousand dollars thereafter) as well as potential removal from
office. For this, and other reasons, some of the most vocal critics of
S.B. 4 are leaders of the state’s law-enforcement community.

On April 28th, just after the bill passed the Texas House of
Representatives, a group of police chiefs led by David Pughes and Art
Acevedo—the heads of the Dallas and Houston Police Departments,
respectively—wrote a public statement urging lawmakers to reconsider. “No
one believes in the rule of law more than police officers,” they began,
but this bill was “political pandering that will make our communities more
dangerous.” In their eyes, the bill would undermine the work they’ve done
to build trust in the communities they police.

Police chiefs have been speaking out against the bill since it was
introduced in the State Senate, last fall. “It’s kind of amazing that,
during the initial hearing, the senators had all these chiefs and sheriffs
from across Texas speaking against the bill—and they totally ignored the
people in law enforcement,” the El Paso County sheriff, Richard Wiles,
told me this week. He said that his staff is overworked as it is. “My
officers are too busy to waste their time doing another agency’s work,” he
said. “If there is an officer who wants to do this, we can’t stop him
under the new law. The only area where one of my officers could now be
allowed to go out there and ignore his own bosses is on immigration. It’s

Wiles believes that the law will make daily policing more difficult. “We
want people to report crime, whether they’re a victim or a witness,
regardless of their immigration status,” he said. If individuals are
scared they’ll be deported when they come forward, key leads will dry up
and crimes will become harder to solve. Acevedo, the Houston police chief,
pointed out that such an outcome would affect citizens and noncitizens
alike. “What if the only witness to a crime is an undocumented nanny, or
the gardener, or a construction worker?” he said. “And now they don’t call
in what they see!” Acevedo told me that this year, amid rising fears of a
federal immigration raids, there’s been a forty-two-per-cent reduction in
reports of rapes in Latino communities in the Houston area, even though
the crime rate itself hasn’t declined. “That does not bode well,” he said.
“Community policing is something that’s been at the core of American law
enforcement for the last twenty or thirty years. It’s resulted in
historically low crime rates despite population growth and despite the
fact that most departments are understaffed and under-resourced. I’m not
going to sit idly by while calls for service are piling up and an officer
decides to go, instead, to a Home Depot to harass day laborers.”

Bills like S.B. 4 had circulated in the Texas legislature in years past,
pushed by conservative state lawmakers looking to make a statement.
Gregorio Casar, a member of the Austin City Council, told me, “There have
been forces here in Texas that have wanted this bill and bills like it for
a long time. But they weren’t serious threats. Texas on immigration policy
was like the dog that barked but didn’t always bite.” That changed in
January, after Donald Trump issued an executive order on so-called
sanctuary cities, threatening to withhold federal money from local
jurisdictions that didn’t do ICE’s bidding. There is no set definition of
what makes a sanctuary city—different cities have instituted their own
immigrant-friendly laws and guidelines—but the Administration was trying
to compel local officials to do more to help federal immigration agents.

After Trump issued the order, Sally Hernandez, the sheriff of Travis
County, Texas, publicly criticized it. “We cannot afford to make our
community less safe by driving people into the shadows,” she said at the
time. Abbott, the Governor, responded by promising a total "crackdown" on
sanctuary cities in the state. On January 31st, in his State of the State
address, he identified the war on sanctuary cities as a top policy
priority. He also punished Travis County, specifically, by withholding
$1.5 million in state funding. S.B. 4 had been introduced a few months
earlier, and Republicans quickly rallied to the Governor’s call, passing
the measure in the State Senate on February 8th.

As the House debated the bill, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin—which is
the Travis County seat—travelled to Washington with a delegation of mayors
from across the country to meet with Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General.
Adler and the other mayors wanted to know if the federal government
considered their cities “sanctuaries.” More specifically, they wanted
clarification on whether cities were legally required to comply with
so-called detainer requests—when ICE asks local law-enforcement officials
to hold, for an extended period of time, an undocumented person who was
arrested, even if he or she hadn’t been charged with a crime. Several of
the mayors present interpreted the Attorney General’s answer as a no, and
they gave press conferences after the meeting to announce that they’d left
feeling reassured. “I walked out of that meeting saying, ‘O.K., this is
what the Attorney General is telling me,’ ” Adler recalled. He thought
that having clarification from the Justice Department would slow down the
legislative push in his home state. But it didn’t; neither did the ruling
of a federal judge, who blocked the President’s executive order for
unfairly punishing sanctuary cities.

I asked Cecillia Wang, the deputy legal director of the A.C.L.U., which
has also filed suit against the law, how S.B. 4 ranks among other
infamously harsh anti-immigrant laws that have been passed in recent
years, like Arizona’s. She told me that she sees Texas’s law as especially
harmful because it puts local officials in a significant legal bind. Over
the years, people have sued local police departments for holding them
without a valid warrant at the behest of ICE, and the courts have ruled
that municipalities bear legal liability in such cases. “The various
detainer lawsuits over the past several years make it clear that this law
is a bad idea, and yet the Texas legislature and the Governor shoved it
down their own police chiefs’ and sheriffs’ throats,” Wang said. “It’s
stripping away their ability to do their job as they see fit, which is to
protect public safety.”

Acevedo, the Houston police chief, saw an irony in this. “Texas
politicians always complain that Washington is trying to dictate to them
how to do things,” he told me. “Now they’re turning around and doing the
same thing to the cities in their own state.”

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