Texas Cities Caught in the Crossfire of Sanctuary Fight

Texas wants cops to help crack down on undocumented immigrants. Police worry that will make cities less safe.

TOPSHOT - A young boy and his family look at the horses of the Fort Worth, Texas mounted police on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. / AFP / DOMINICK REUTER        (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A young boy and his family look at the horses of the Fort Worth, Texas mounted police on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. / AFP / DOMINICK REUTER (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

DALLAS and FORT WORTH, Texas — As a candidate, President Donald Trump vowed a tough new immigration regime, but many of his signature plans have so far been stymied: Mexico is not paying for a wall on America’s southern border, Congress so far refuses to sign off on increased funding for a big deportation force, and courts keep blocking Trump’s travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries and his effort to starve so-called “sanctuary cities” of funding.

So some states are picking up the slack. In May, Texas passed a law based on a State Senate bill that allows police officers to delve into anyone’s immigration status — during an arrest, detention, on college campuses, or, in some cases, even after witnessing a crime. Set to come into force in September, it also makes it mandatory for local police and sheriff’s departments to comply with federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants. At least 32 other states are considering similar anti-sanctuary city laws.

But the new law is proving divisive in increasingly diverse Texas and a source of concern for law enforcement officials who fear that undocumented immigrants, in many cases their “eyes and ears” into local crime, will clam up and stop helping police for fear of coming into contact with immigration authorities.

Police chiefs in six big Texas cities — Arlington, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio — vocally opposed the Senate bill, even as it won support from rural and suburban voters. Major Texan hubs like Dallas and Fort Worth are now torn between continuing policies they say make their cities safer and economically vibrant and enforcing the letter of the law and moving to deport anyone who may have entered the country illegally.

“There can’t be a fear that if you engage with police, you will be asked for documentation status. If you live under that fear, then you will not call the police,” said Lee Kleinman, a member of the Dallas City Council.

Though not a “sanctuary city,” Dallas has benefitted from an open-arms policy: Kleinman credits the city’s welcoming, can-do atmosphere toward immigrants with helping attract big companies like Toyota and Boeing. But there’s also fear of a backlash.

“We have to walk a very fine line,” he said. “We have no interest in being declared a sanctuary city.”

The term is hazily defined, usually referring to cities that don’t comply with federal immigration laws in one way or another. No major Texas city defines itself as a sanctuary city, but the label could soon carry steep consequences. Under the new Texas law, cities and officials who don’t toe the line can be fined up to $25,000 a day, and police chiefs and elected officials could even face jail time if they don’t cooperate.

Many major cities across the United States such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago are either self-declared sanctuary cities or, like Dallas and Fort Worth, put a higher priority on fighting crime than on immigration violations (though they still cooperate with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for arrested immigrants).

There’s a reason for that: Undocumented immigrants can help police keep tabs on rough neighborhoods, gangs, and the drug trade. The more comfortable they feel speaking with police, the more likely they are to come forward and share information that could help prevent or solve a crime.

“Undocumented residents don’t live in a vacuum,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who strenuously opposed the bill. “If a large swath of your community is afraid to dial 911 or afraid to send their children to school or go to the county hospital, then we are all less safe.”

In neighboring Fort Worth, the city’s police department has spent almost two decades investing in community policing strategies that encourage residents, regardless of immigration status, to see police officers as resources instead of threats. For the Hispanic community, Officer Daniel Segura is the public face of this effort. He’s a familiar sight around town, his booming radio-host voice greeting Fort Worth’s Hispanic residents at taquerias, shopping centers, and churches.

“We tell them: We don’t care about your legal status. But if you are a victim of a crime or a witness of a crime, you can be a part of solving that crime,” he said.

Segura says he gets tips almost daily on drug and gang activity, which he passes on to investigators. The department also works with roughly 1,000 “Citizens on Patrol” volunteers, many of them undocumented, an informal neighborhood watch.

“They are our eyes and ears,” Segura said.

The approach, afforded by a bigger police budget and combined with better equipment and a larger police force, has produced real results. In the 1980s, Fort Worth was nicknamed “Murder Worth” and was one of the crime capitals of the United States. Today, it is a model for gang prevention, and the murder rate has shrunk drastically.

Cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio are battling the new law in court. But if it takes effect in September, Segura worries he will no longer be able to reassure residents that police officers are friends, not foes. That would be a stark change from the department’s current guidelines, which direct officers to steer clear of asking about immigration status. He suggests it could be a deal-breaker for him.

“If I have to go against my character on what I do, then I’m not going to be doing it,” he said.

Supporters of the new measures say concerns over racial profiling are overblown and stress that the law is meant to keep officials from ignoring ICE detention requests, as Sally Hernandez, the new sheriff in Travis County, which surrounds progressive Austin, vowed to do for low-level misdemeanors. The new law won’t require police to ask for papers — it just stops them from being prohibited from doing so.

SB-4, as the Senate bill is known, “does not seek to deport every innocent illegal immigrant who gets stopped by a traffic cop. But the law is the law, and we believe it should be enforced,” Fran Rhodes, the vice president of fundraising for the NE Tarrant Tea Party, which supports the law, wrote in an email.

But Jenkins, the Dallas judge, doesn’t buy it. “However politicians spin it, officers are liable to ask you and your family for papers, and anyone who doesn’t have them can be detained,” he said. Police chiefs who urge officers to focus on crime and stay away from immigration debates, he noted, could now be prosecuted.

There are already signs that some of the worries Segura and Jenkins share are coming true. Police departments across the country have observed a marked drop in crime reporting in Hispanic neighborhoods this year. In Houston, the number of Hispanic residents reporting rape and sexual assault fell 43 percent, and other types of crime reporting dropped 12 percent in the first three months of 2017, compared with the same time period in 2016, while other ethnic communities have continued reporting crimes at nearly the same or higher rates.

The Los Angeles Police Department said in March that reports by the city’s Hispanic population of sexual assault had plummeted 25 percent since the start of 2017. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Denver saw a similar drop in crime reporting from Hispanics in the first three months of Trump’s presidency.

The anxiety is palpable among many undocumented immigrants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and anecdotal evidence suggests fear of encountering the immigration dragnet is keeping Hispanics laying low. Real estate agents that deal with low-income housing report a steep drop in clients looking for new homes. Schools have seen gaps in attendance from Hispanic students. Dentist’s and doctor’s offices that serve Spanish-speaking communities even say business is suffering because they are having trouble convincing immigrant families their personal information is safe.

Some are joining in the effort to try to reassure immigrants as well. At a know-your-rights panel sponsored by Jefferson Dental Clinics, which mainly caters to Spanish speakers, 31-year-old Magdalena Rodriguez had a question. Three years ago, she and her husband caught a burglar at a relative’s house and detained him until the police arrived. She wanted to know if she could still parlay that into what’s known as a U-visa, a special visa for crime victims and witnesses who help police. Segura, who attended the panel, held at a Dallas school, told her it would be a long shot, but she should start the process. Rodriguez was desperate for a chance.

She has lived in the United States for 16 years and now fears being sent back to Mexico, leaving her four young children behind. “What kind of mother am I?” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Since Trump took office, Rodriguez trembles every time she drives 25 minutes to school and keeps shopping trips to a minimum. She only takes her children to the doctor at night — pulling them out of class for a day might attract extra scrutiny. She’s sick of her neighbor’s marijuana smoke blowing into her house, but she and her husband are afraid to even begin looking for a new place.

Would she still call the police if she saw another burglary? If she were robbed herself?

She shook her head no. She’s too afraid.

Come September, if the law takes effect, she and her husband have decided to move to another state.

“It feels like everything we achieved in these years — kids, family, work…” Rodriguez trailed off. “It’s like you are hitting a wall.”

Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

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