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SB4 and Community Fears

June 09, 2017 | posted by

Some weeks ago, Governor Greg Abbott took the time to write an editorial for the San Antonio Express-News. In it, he suggested that misunderstandings about SB 4 were being used as pretexts for “fearmongering.” More recently an ugly confrontation between opponents of this new law and supporters of the law took place at the Texas Capitol. Tempers and rhetoric flared dramatically. This is not all the result of misunderstanding and fearmongering.

There is a long background to the latest expressions of anger and frustration. During the legislative debate, the rhetorical pitch of anti-immigrant sentiment reached high levels. As we now know, enflamed rhetoric engenders enflamed rhetoric. And, as has happened on the national level, this state law encourages the notion that the immigrant community is defined by the criminals in our midst, instead of defined by the fact that most immigrants are working families with children. These things generate fear in the immigrant community.

The public debate often makes it sound as if all immigrants are criminals because they are here without proper documentation. Overstaying a visa is not a criminal offense; it is a civil offense against a federal statute. To be an immigrant without valid documentation does not make you a criminal. Yes, immigrants without valid documents have infracted federal statutes; but they are not justly lumped together with human traffickers, drug dealers and murderers.

The Catholic bishops of Texas opposed SB 4 as it was making its way through the state Legislature, and at the time of its passage encouraged the governor to veto it. The law obscures the jurisdictional boundaries between enforcement of federal statutes and enforcement of state and local laws. The law now explicitly says that local and state police “may ask” about immigration status at any point beginning with routine police stops. It was the inclusion of these “field enforcement” provisions in the law that were most vehemently opposed by the bishops as injurious to community trust in local law enforcement.

It is not the case, as the governor and others argue, that only criminals need to fear SB 4. This law promotes uncertainty and ambiguity. People are now afraid that pretexts will be invented so that they can be stopped and asked about their immigration status. Yes, the law prohibits discrimination and profiling, but the immigrant poor are not likely to have the resources or the counsel needed to defend themselves. People get stopped, and they are desperately afraid. They immediately wonder about their children, and about their own safety if deported. It is this uncertainty and potential panic at the moment of questioning that breeds fear and that hurts the community fabric.

And what happens, then, when some local and state police forces are inevitably more aggressive than others in exercising this “may ask” option? Are they not encouraging immigrants to distrust all “potential askers?” And does not such uncertainty make it less likely that crimes will be reported?

The Legislature passed the bill and the governor signed it into law, and so the whole state will have to deal with the ongoing consequences. We are a nation of laws, as the governor says; unfortunately, not all our laws are good laws. Bad laws have bad effects. For the Catholic bishops, this means we will step up our efforts to inform persons of their rights, including the right to remain silent, and to make available the best advice about what to do if you are stopped and are without valid documentation. We will also work to repeal SB 4, or correct the most injurious aspects of this law. And we encourage all who oppose this law to work together in strenuous and peaceful ways toward this same end.

Archbisishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSPS, leads the Archdiocese of San Antonio and Bishop Daniel Flores is the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Brownsville, which serves 1.14 million Catholics. This commentary has also appeared in the San Antonio Express-News as well as in newspapers in the Rio Grande Valley.