The memorial service for Texas Rangers and state troopers who have been killed in the line of duty had ended Tuesday when a reporter for Univision 62, the Austin station for the Spanish-language network, asked Gov. Greg Abbott if he could say anything that might allay the fears of Hispanic Texans worried about the “sanctuary cities” ban he recently signed into law.
“My message to the Hispanic community is don’t fall for all of the fearmongering that’s going on,” Abbott replied. “If you look at the details of Senate Bill 4, it does not pose any concern for anybody who’s not a criminal. If you’re a criminal and you’ve done something wrong, yes, whether you’re here legally or illegally, you’ve got something to be concerned about. If not, you’ve got nothing to be concerned about.”
But Democratic lawmakers, lawyers and activists who passionately opposed the legislation found cold comfort in the governor’s assurance.
“Either he hasn’t read the bill or he misunderstands it,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, a leading opponent who had beseeched Abbott to contemplate his Catholic faith and his wife’s Hispanic ancestry before affixing his signature to the legislation.
But Rep. Jason Villalba, Anchia’s Dallas colleague and one of only three Hispanic Republicans in a Legislature in which every Republican voted in favor of SB 4, said he thought Abbott’s soothing words were reasonable and appropriate.
“I tend to think he’s right,” Villalba said. “This bill is a law-and-order, commonsense measure that say that cities and other jurisdictions cannot refuse to enforce existing federal law.”
“That’s all it says,” said Villalba, adding it was something that the overwhelming majority of Texans of all backgrounds support.
Defending SB 4
In the aftermath of Abbott signing the law on May 7, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a “travel alert” for Texas.
“The law gives a green light to police officers in the state to investigate a person’s immigration status during a routine traffic stop, leading to widespread racial profiling, baseless scrutiny, and illegal arrests of citizens and non-citizens alike presumed to be ‘foreign’ based on how they look or sound,” the ACLU said in a statement.
Villalba called that “the height of disingenuousness.”
“Everything that is said about ‘show me your papers’ is flat-out false,” Abbott said Tuesday. “The only way that anybody can ever be detained is if there is probable cause to detain someone.”
But Jose Garza, a San Antonio attorney who advises the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the only way one wouldn’t think that this law would lead to racial profiling is if one were willfully blind to Texas history.
“In Texas, we have a history of the Latino community having been at odds with law enforcement,” Garza said. “I’m not saying that all law enforcement is out to target Latinos, but I think this gives police the license to target Latinos. I don’t think it’s hyperbole. I think it’s a real threat.”
Under the law, police can inquire about a person’s immigration status if that person has been detained for crimes as minor as jaywalking and speeding, even if the suspect hasn’t been arrested. Democrats, and a few Republicans, including Villalba, wanted a higher standard, in which a person had to be arrested to have to answer questions about immigration status.
‘A racist law’
In the end, what started out as a law intended to bring to heel “sanctuary city policies” in which certain jurisdictions choose not to cooperate fully with federal immigration law, now, with that provision, applies broadly across the state and might place individuals who aren’t authorized to be in the country — and their families, including children who are often American-born citizens — on high alert for any interaction with police that could end with their detection and deportation.
“It’s a racist law,” said Sheridan Aguirre, a University of Texas graduate and spokesman for United We Dream, an organization of young people who lack legal immigration status. Aguirre was part of a Capitol press conference Tuesday at which county commissioners, state legislators and grassroots organizations from the five largest metropolitan areas in Texas launched a coordinated effort to support litigation challenging SB 4.
The Austin City Council is expected to formally join that effort later this week.
But, Abbott said in his remarks, “The people who have gotten this right are the Hidalgo County sheriff and the McAllen police chief. These are people on the border. They are men, both of whom are Hispanic, and they’ve got communities with a high-percentage Hispanic population, and they both said the exact right thing. This law is not going to change a thing about the way they do their business.”
“If there hasn’t been a problem in the past, there won’t be a problem in the future, except for those who are here illegally and have committed a crime,” Abbott said.
But state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, said Abbott’s comments about the law suggest that he wants to reap the political benefit of SB 4 without incurring any of the backlash from those who might be hurt by it.
“He wants the cheese, but he doesn’t want to be stuck in the trap,” Nevárez said. “He needs to own it.”