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Democrats urged to join fight against SB 4

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told members of the Central Texas Democratic Forum on Monday that Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary cities bill, throws out policies created by sheriffs and police departments across the state about how and when to ask about immigration status.

“This is kind of a road map to racial profiling,” he said.

Simpson was one of three opponents of SB 4 who urged the group to donate its money and time to help fight the legislation and to help groups that assist undocumented immigrants. City Council Member Greg Casar and Austin Independent School District Trustee Paul Saldaña also talked about the problems their constituents are facing.

Simpson explained that SB 4, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House State Affairs Committee, prohibits local police chiefs and sheriffs as well as campus police departments from prohibiting or discouraging their officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people they have stopped.

Cities and counties that are adjudged to be violating the law would lose state grant funding and also be subject to civil fines. Gov. Greg Abbott did not wait for passage of the bill before punishing Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez for deciding not to honor most Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests.

The bill also says that the department heads, presumably police chiefs and sheriffs, could be prosecuted criminally.

Simpson explained that the legislation would not allow police chiefs or sheriffs to create any policy “that limits in any way what an officer can ask about immigration status. … So each individual officer will use their own discretion, not guided by any departmental policy about when they’re going to ask people immigration status questions – and they have full latitude to do that anytime they detain or arrest someone. So, folks that are detained, for any number of reasons, might find themselves being interrogated. … That’s a huge break” from the current practice.

The ACLU believes that the legislation will encourage racial profiling and make it harder to win lawsuits against officers who engage in such behavior.

But Matthew Dowling, chief of staff to Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), told the Austin Monitor that SB 4 contains a specific provision that prohibits such conduct. In fact, the bill says officers “may not consider race, color, religion, language, or national origin while enforcing immigration laws except to the extent permitted by the United States Constitution or Texas Constitution.”

Dowling said asking about immigration status would be up to each individual officer’s discretion. But he had no further information on how that conversation should go.

Simpson also said that the bill makes mandatory compliance with requests from ICE, whether made in writing or verbally. Any mistake in this area could lead to a lawsuit by the person wrongfully detained, he said.

This is the problem that Hernandez has faced. And it has already cost Travis County millions of dollars.

Simpson said he believes the proposed legislation is in conflict with federal law as well as the constitution.

Casar earlier this month helped lead the charge to add $200,000 to the immigration services budget for Catholic Charities of Central Texas. He told the group he had constituents coming to tell him about family members and friends who are now in detention, “a humanitarian crisis basically being (caused) by our own government. And we’ve had some humanitarian response,” he said.

One of Casar’s examples was Hernandez “stepping up and putting in place a totally lawful policy.” “We are working together with folks to find lawyers for those detained,” he said. Politically, he said, “It is incumbent on us to be careful and also to be bold. There is hope that this (deportation push) has the opportunity to backfire. While many families were taken from the Lamar and Rundberg area, the next night, there were people dancing at the intersection. It’s so important for the community to come together.”

Saldaña reminded the group that he is currently the only Hispanic member of the school board, which he described as “very conservative.” In response to a question from former state Rep. Glen Maxey, Saldaña said what he meant was that the board is afraid of taking actions that might cost the district money.

There has been tension between district administrators and the teachers union over what teachers may say about dealing with ICE.

Saldaña said about 30,000 of AISD’s 80,000 children are English language learners. He noted that because the district has so many immigrant children, four schools recorded only 50 percent attendance on Feb. 16, the Day Without Immigrants. In total, 20,000 students did not show up for school that day. Because state payments are based on attendance, those absences cost AISD $1 million, he said.

Photo of Matt Simpson by Jo Clifton.

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