As SB4 legal fight looms, all Texans could suffer

Reason is a guiding principle in any productive government. But where was reason when Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law one of the most divisive and intrusive pieces of Texas legislation in recent history: Senate Bill 4, banning so-called sanctuary cities?

The new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, allows local law enforcement to question a person’s immigration status during a detainment, which can include a routine traffic stop. It also subjects local jurisdictions, including sheriffs and police chiefs, to misdemeanor charges and fines if they disregard federal immigration agents’ requests to hold inmates who are subject to deportation. If found guilty, local-level elected officials can ultimately be removed from office if they knowingly fail to comply with an immigration detainer request.

Like many in our state — including police chiefs of major cities, faith-based communities, business leaders and local elected officials — we’ve expressed our strong opposition to SB 4. For many years, this board has called for comprehensive immigration reform. But reforms should come at the federal level. A Draconian attempt to enforce immigration law, SB 4 offers no viable and effective solution.

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

Sold on the promise to make Texans safer, SB 4 hinders rather than helps law enforcement keep communities safer. It threatens the sanctity of local governance. It’s extreme, targeting illegal immigration in an overly broad manner. Giving local law enforcement the power to investigate a person’s immigration status can lead to racial profiling, including of people who have a legal right to be here. Bear in mind, too, federal courts have declared that complying with requests from federal agents to hold inmates who might be subject to deportation is voluntary.

Fortunately, Texas is not out of the reach of the nation’s system of governmental checks and balances. Legal challenges rightly will and should come. Until then, however, many will be hurt — and Texas stands to suffer economically, too.

The fallout is already swift. The American Civil Liberties Union is warning visitors to our state to expect possible violations of their constitutional rights if stopped by law enforcement, while immigration advocates are branding the Texas measure a “show me your papers law.”

Granted, things like that smack of hyperbole for political gain — but they surely don’t allay perceptions that the law is anti-immigrant or racist.

If the fate of similar measures is an indication, legal challenges could ultimately derail the new law. Take for instance Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, SB 1070. The Supreme Court placed an injunction order almost immediately after it was signed into law. Two years later, part of the law was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress — not the states — has the authority to create immigration law. The same argument might come into play with SB 4.

Civil rights groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU promise to bring forward legal challenges. Some Texas municipalities, including Austin, could also file suits.

We can expect Texas and its taxpayers to be up for a protracted and expensive legal battle. For now, all in Texas will pay – directly and indirectly – the consequences. Parents will be separated from their U.S.-born children. Law enforcement officers in some cities could shift their attention to identifying undocumented immigrants, an additional duty that diverts from the job of safeguarding their communities.

Legal jockeying has already begun. Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal court in Austin to pre-emptively find the law constitutional, an effort to head off legal challenges. Paxton called the law “a vital step in securing our borders.” A federal court judge should examine closely whether the state has overstepped boundaries by undermining rights granted under the Texas Constitution for local jurisdictions to govern themselves.

While the ACLU and others might be quick to single out Texas, the law mirrors the tone set by a congressional majority in Washington and an administration that fans anti-immigrant fears and rhetoric. Proponents, however, hold firm to their argument that the measure is about “getting dangerous criminals off the street.”

Except it won’t. Instead, it will have a chilling effect on public safety.

RELATED: Texas sheriffs say SB4 burdens law enforcement, local taxpayers.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo recently reported that the number of Latinos reporting rape in that city is down nearly 43 percent from last year. Violent crimes reported by Latinos are also down by 13 percent. Officials attribute the decreases to fears over toughened immigration enforcement.

Unreported crimes don’t just affect undocumented immigrants. When witnesses and victims don’t report crimes out of fear of deportation, criminals are free to roam the communities they live in and beyond for their next victim.

If Arizona’s controversial immigration law was an example, Texas also runs the risk of economic repercussions. In the wake of the law’s passage in Arizona, businesses lost lucrative contracts while boycotts hurt sports arenas, convention centers and hotels. Six years after Arizona’s SB 1070 passed, the construction industry there has yet to recover.

This is a defining moment in our state and national history. How we treat our immigrant communities is a direct reflection of us as a people.

If only reason had been in the room when Abbott carried out his promise to ban sanctuary cities. Instead, he has made Texas more unwelcoming toward undocumented immigrants. All Texans will bear the consequences.

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