Phillips: Sanctuary cities bill incites fear — but could inspire change

In signing Senate Bill 4 this week, Gov. Greg Abbott said it would rid Texas of sanctuary cities, and therefore keep dangerous criminals off the streets. If only it were that simple.

That narrow view doesn’t encompass the broader reality faced by many Texas police chiefs, county attorneys and community leaders. They know all too well public safety is not just about locking people up, keeping them in jail and deporting those who are in the country illegally, as SB4 would do very efficiently.

The hard work of keeping communities safe, officials say, relies on public trust. That public trust helps officers not only investigate crimes but prevents them. SB4 undermines that hard-won trust — and that leaves us less safe.

Local officials now are bracing for consequences – even before SB4 becomes law on Sept. 1 — trying to get ahead of a wave of fear they say will make their jobs fighting crime tougher.

“The governor is acting like there is not going to be any consequences,” said Mack Martinez, director of domestic violence and human trafficking for the Travis County Attorney’s Office. “When you have an unsafe part of the community, that does flow over to the general community.

“Someone can rob an undocumented person. And that person might not come forward to report a crime, fearing deportation. But that is a crime that goes unaddressed. And a man who is a U.S. citizen who physically abuses an undocumented woman — and she doesn’t come forward. He is not going to stop to think about whether the next person he abuses is undocumented. He is just going to hit and hurt.”

Though Martinez says he has not yet seen a lag in Latinos reporting domestic abuse or rape, he “is expecting a setback” as perceptions swirl about SB4. And for good reason.

Though Abbott says the law would keep dangerous criminals off the streets because it requires local sheriffs to comply with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it also would subject any undocumented person, including those accused of a minor offense, to prolonged detention and deportation. In the past, minor offenders enjoyed some protection against such treatment. SB4 strips that away.

In losing flexibility to manage their jail populations, sheriffs might be faced with handing over more minor offenders to ICE rather than handing over only suspects who pose the greatest danger.

Abbott has made clear SB4 largely was a response to the policies of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, under which the county refuses to detain defendants for immigration investigations unless they are charged with crimes such as murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking. Reasonable people can differ about whether Hernandez’s timing and messaging regarding the policy was off, which came as lawmakers were in session at the Capitol. Even so, SB4 goes too far.

It gives law enforcement permission to ask about a person’s immigration status during a stop, even for something as mundane as jaywalking. That provision is particularly unsound, given the state’s continued problems with racial profiling.

“It’s going to be difficult because we don’t want (SB4) to put a chill in the community,” Martinez told me. We’ve got to shine a light on this. It (SB4) will impact our community if victims and witnesses don’t come forward.”

A chill already is falling on Houston.

The number of Hispanics there reporting rape in that city is down nearly 43 percent from last year, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said, noting that there is also about a 13-percent drop in Hispanics reporting other violent crimes. That decline comes as reporting by the rest of the community for those crimes has gone up, said Acevedo, who formerly led the Austin Police Department.

While SB4 bars officers from asking witnesses or victims about their immigration status, “what it does hurt,” Acevedo said, “is the perception created in the immigrant community that local law enforcement is going to start being ICE agents.”

In Austin, the number of Hispanics reporting rapes is down by 3 percent from this time last year. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley cautioned against drawing too many conclusions, since the drop represents two cases, going from 66 to 64.

But the drop for Hispanics reporting burglaries was steep — down 29 percent, compared with an 8-percent decline among others.

The bill’s chilling effect might spread to politics, Acevedo said, if it becomes Abbott’s “Pete Wilson moment,” backfiring in the same way the former California governor’s embrace of Proposition 187 — which aimed to deny public education and other services to undocumented California families — did in 1994. The fierce fallout over Prop. 187 is credited with fueling a Hispanic wave to the polls that ultimately gave Democrats control over statewide offices.

The issue carries risk for Abbott, who garnered 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in a state where Latinos make up about 40 percent of the population.

Though Prop. 187 ultimately was struck down, Wilson’s legacy is permanently tarred and Republicans mostly have been sidelined.

In Texas, Republicans are smug with dominance over the legislature, courts and governor’s mansion. But political shifts often are fueled by extreme deeds. SB4, which incites fear, might also inspire change.

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