AT A stroke, Republicans in Texas enacted a law this spring that undercuts law enforcement chiefs in the state’s biggest cities and amounts to a frontal assault on the Hispanic population, which accounts for 4 in 10 Texans. The law, rammed through the GOP-dominated legislature in Austin and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), threatens police chiefs, sheriffs and other officials with fines, removal from office and even imprisonment if they take steps to impede officers from questioning the immigration status of people they arrest or detain, including those stopped for minor traffic violations — even if they’re not charged with a crime.
Texas’s new statute, which takes effect in September, is in some ways more draconian than Arizona’s notorious “show me your papers” law, enacted in 2010. Under the guise of cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities and counties, it effectively wrests control of police departments and sheriff’s offices from commanders whose priorities, in some cases, include cultivating good relations with Hispanic communities.
The measure dealt a blow to good policing in a state that prides itself on law and order. That was made clear in a public statement drafted by a group of police chiefs from around the state, led by those in Houston and Dallas, who warned that it would discourage Hispanic victims and witnesses from reporting crimes and interacting with officers, for fear they could be asked about their immigration status and risk deportation. The chiefs called the measure “political pandering that will make our communities more dangerous.”
In addition to endangering community policing efforts, the law is a blow to social cohesion in a state with an estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been in the United States for more than a decade and have children or other relatives who are U.S. citizens.
Now, police chiefs and sheriffs determined to cultivate closer ties with Hispanic communities would be hamstrung in dealing with freelancers on their forces who might prefer to detain day laborers for loitering. Powerless to prioritize more serious crimes over immigration violations, local police chiefs and sheriffs would be stripped of their authority.
Many Texas sheriffs, especially in rural counties, support the new law, which they say imposes uniformity on enforcement statewide. In fact, it does the opposite: The law does not require officers to inquire about immigration status; it blocks their superiors from prohibiting it. The effect is that even within the ranks of a single police force or sheriff’s office, commanders would be powerless to enforce consistency.
The law faces legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, which hope federal courts will regard it as an affront to civil liberties and an invitation to racial profiling. A federal judge in San Antonio heard arguments on the case Monday. Coupled with a recent federal court ruling that found that lawmakers in Austin had intentionally gerrymandered congressional districts to dilute minority voting power, it suggests that state officials are eager to keep Texas a bad place to not be white.
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