Two Texas bishops have defended from charges of fear mongering the opponents of a new law which targets sanctuary cities for immigrants, explaining that the bill draws little distinction between criminals and undocumented immigrants.
The law in question, Senate Bill 4, was signed into law May 7. It will take effect in September, and requires local government and law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law. Cities which do not comply face fines and the withholding of state funding.
The law also allows law enforcement to question the immigration status of those they detain, as well as the victims and witnesses of crimes. This provision had led to fears that undocumented immigrants will be less likely to report crimes.
“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," Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville wrote in a June 4 column.
“Yes, immigrants without valid documents have infracted federal statutes; but they are not justly lumped together with human traffickers, drug dealers and murderers," they maintained.
The column, which appeared in the McAllen-based daily The Monitor, is a response to a previous column by Governor Greg Abbott (R) which appeared in the San Antonio Express-News and in The Monitor.
The governor had charged that “Whether driven by misunderstanding or by purposeful fear mongering, those who are inflaming unrest place all who live in Texas at greater risk."
The bishops said there is more to the unrest than misunderstanding, and that it is SB 4 which is causing fear among immigrant communities.
“This new Texas 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."
Archbishop García-Siller and Bishop Flores are worried that the option for law enforcement to question immigration status will lead to aggressive interpretations, and that “pretexts will be invented so that [people] can be stopped and asked about their immigration status."
Noting that while the law “prohibits discrimination and profiling," the bishops said that “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."
Any law enforcement agencies that are more aggressive in questioning immigration status will undermine trust in all law enforcement persons, the bishops noted.
“And does not such uncertainty make it less likely that crimes will be reported?"
Archbishop García-Siller and Bishop Flores noted that “We are a nation of laws, as the governor says; unfortunately, not all our laws are good laws. Bad laws have bad effects."
They stated, “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."