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Commission on Immigrant Affairs responds to SB 4

Thursday, May 11, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

As the sky crumbled above them, the city’s Commission on Immigrant Affairs scrambled to pick up the pieces Monday night in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s signing of Senate Bill 4 over the weekend. Slated to become law September 1, the bill seeks to impose more responsibility on local law enforcement to pursue state and federal immigration policy and has drawn mass protests from the Austin community and other cities.

“What do you tell people?” Commissioner Karen Crawford asked, as one of the many attorneys in the room. “On the one hand you have Fifth Amendment rights and you shouldn’t be required to carry your passport with you at all times, because that’s not what this country is about, but on the other hand we don’t want people to be stuck in a jail.”

The commission has already been in damage control mode since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, but Senate Bill 4 goes a step further than federal anti-immigrant actions by singling out Texas residents, and by extension the Texas cities that see themselves as sanctuaries. Austin and Travis County are both listed as defendants in a lawsuit filed Monday morning by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wherein he accuses them, among other municipalities and counties, as being non-compliant with the new law.

“(The lawsuit) is irregular,” said Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Really from beginning to end the sanctuary city bill has defied the way things normally work.”

The bill will force county sheriffs and other criminal justice personnel to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests, and those who refuse to, as Travis County has under the leadership of Sheriff Sally Hernandez, will have to deal with harsher penalties. But the provision of the bill that has raised the most alarm among critics is one that will permit local police officers to inquire about a lawfully detained person’s immigration status.

“I think this will clearly cause racial profiling,” Simpson said. “If I’m sitting there in the driver’s seat and I’m being racially profiled, what is the officer even looking for? What are they expecting to get from me? A driver’s license? That’s not proof of citizenship. I think that’s the problem with this bill.”

Simpson clarified that police would have to have a reason to detain someone first, but Commissioner Krystal Gomez said that the provision would still open the door to problems.

“Per the constitution, (police) are not supposed to arrest you because they are unsure about your citizenship status,” she said. “However, if they wanted to issue you a ticket for a broken taillight, or if they thought you were reckless driving and they arrest you for that as a means of finding out if you were a citizen, that’s more tenuous.”

Simpson suggested that the commission put forward a recommendation to City Council to reduce the number of less-necessary interactions between the community and police, like warrant round-ups, in an effort to decrease the chances of bad apple officers taking advantage of the new law.

Gomez said that the commission could draft a resolution encouraging the Austin Police Department to use tactics like cite and release that would reduce the number of overall arrests. The commission will have to work fast if it wants to come up with something before the bill’s September enactment.

Senate Bill 4 protest via Facebook Live.

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