When the Most. Rev. Joe S. Vásquez testified at the Capitol last week against Senate Bill 4 – which would ban so-called sanctuary cities in Texas — he certainly had sway, representing not just the Diocese of Austin but the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops that directs public policy statewide for the church.
But these days the bishop has greater authority in delivering the church’s message on issues regarding immigration, sanctuary cities and President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Vásquez a few months ago was elected chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration. That makes him the church’s point person on some of the most politically dicey issues playing out in Texas and across the nation.
In January, Vásquez, speaking for the Catholic Church, pushed back in forceful-but-polite terms against the Trump administration following the release of Trump’s executive order banning travel of people from seven Muslim majority countries to the United States.
“We strongly disagree with the executive order’s halting refugee admissions,” he said last month in a statement responding to the action. “We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope. We will continue to engage the new administration as we have all administrations for the duration of the current refugee program, now almost 40 years.
The bishop again raised his voice at a Capitol hearing in which the Texas senate’s State Affairs Committee took up SB4, telling state senators why the bill was an affront to people of faith.
“The church does not condone or encourage illegal immigration because it is not good for society or for the migrant, who lives in fear and in the shadows,” Vásquez said.
But he noted that SB4 punishes people who already have suffered violence or oppression in their home countries.
“The immigrant who travels to Texas because he needs a job or because she is in despair or abused is in need of basic necessities to live,” he said. “This type of immigrant, which constitutes the majority of immigrants, is not a threat to our safety like the cartels, or traffickers or terrorists.”
Vásquez said SB4 would have a chilling effect on immigrant communities “with documented or undocumented immigrants,” who, he said, “will fear that all police officers will need to detain them.”
He has a point.
Though less rigid than Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law, which required law officers to demand proof of a person’s immigration status, SB4 opens the door to similar racial profiling, humiliation and fear associated with Arizona’s SB 1070.
In my view, Texas’ SB4 should be called the “show me your papers please” bill, as it gives officers permission to ask about a person’s immigration status rather than mandating it. And it creates a new crime: failure to follow the bill’s requirement that police, sheriff’s departments and jail officials participate in federal immigration enforcement.
As such the bill would dismantle policies, such as those by the Austin Police Department that prohibit or discourage officers from inquiring about the immigration status of someone who has been arrested or detained, essentially leaving it up to officers to figure out when that is appropriate.
I’ve little doubt that such a bill if passed into law would embolden some – not all – officers to engage in racial profiling. And it mostly will be Latinos who would be targeted, be they documented, undocumented or American-born.
I also share the concern of many who believe a law of this kind would villainize a whole group of people, who mostly are law-abiding and hard-working.
Another egregious section of SB4 would permit victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions to sue local governments.
Unfortunately, the bill passed the Senate and is on its way to the Texas House, where hopefully it will be stopped or at least heavily amended. Allowing it to become law in its current form would put Texas at a disadvantage in competing for global talent for its tech and medical sectors – not to mention filling jobs in its construction and hospitality industries.
As far as Trump’s executive order goes, Vásquez told me that Austin doesn’t have a refugee resettlement program operated by the church’s Catholic Charities, but that other Texas cities, such as Houston and San Antonio, do have programs.
He reminds us why such programs are needed now, pointing out that war, tyranny and violence are ravaging places that will be affected by Trump’s travel ban if it prevails in legal challenges to remove a court stay. Most of those people fleeing are women and children.
Vásquez says his new role — if not his faith — requires that he and other church leaders continue to engage the Trump administration and the Texas Legislature regarding bans on travel, sanctuary cities and the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with the hope – and prayers — of getting people to work together for humane remedies that keep us safe, without surrendering our values.
With respect, that is going to take a whole lot of praying.