Local law enforcement should not act as immigration agents
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On Aug. 30, federal district judge Orlando Garcia temporarily halted implementation of Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB 4). In a win for the cities of San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and El Cenizo, judge Garcia’s order sends the message that local communities are not powerless in the face of state and national politics.

SB 4 aims to prohibit local communities from enacting policies that stop officers from asking about, arresting, and detaining people based on immigration status or face fines, jail time on criminal misdemeanor charges, and removal from office.

SB 4 arose from a concern that immigrants who commit crimes will remain in our communities and continue committing crimes. Although the current political rhetoric has grossly exaggerated the number of immigrants who commit crimes, this is a valid concern. However, SB 4’s implementation would have had the opposite effect intended — silencing the very people who could bring criminals to justice.

Cities across the state of Texas and around the country know that in order to keep their communities safe, immigrants must feel secure in reporting crime and cooperating with law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. Threatening them with deportation is counter-productive. When crimes are not reported and witnesses fail to show up out of fear of deportation, criminals walk free. After the Texas Legislature passed SB 4, I spoke with many immigrants in San Antonio who expressed an increased fear of talking to the police.

It should go without saying that local communities know what is best for them. Unfortunately, many politicians in the halls of power have forgotten how to respect local communities, including local law enforcement. Police, prosecutors, and judges not only have years of specialized training in criminal justice, but are better acquainted with the needs and character of the communities they work in.

Judge Garcia upheld the section of SB 4 which allows law enforcement to ask about immigration status but he correctly halted the sections that penalize local communities for having policies of not questioning immigration status, or arresting or detaining someone based on immigration status. In effect, the court left the decision of how to use law enforcement resources up to local jurisdictions.

There are two main areas of debate: should local law enforcement arrest and detain people based on immigration status? The answer to the first question is an unequivocal, no. local law enforcement should not act as immigration agents and conduct arrests based solely on immigration status.

In addition to making immigrants afraid to work with law enforcement and thereby making our communities less safe, making arrests based on immigration status can lead to racial profiling. After all, how do we know who an immigrant is? We are a land of immigrants, an ethnically and racially diverse country going back for generations.

Furthermore, arresting people based on their immigration status is an expensive job that takes away time and resources that our police could better spend on responding to crimes, natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, and other community emergencies.

This is why many communities have ended their 287(g) programs with the federal government, which deputize local law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents. For example, in February 2017 the sheriff of Harris County, where Houston is located, pulled out of the program, saving the county $675,000.

Whether local law enforcement should detain people based on immigration status is a slightly more complicated question. There are two scenarios in which someone might be detained based on immigration status: prior to receiving a conviction or after being convicted.

No one should be detained prior to receiving a conviction based solely on immigration status. If the individual is accused of a serious crime, our criminal justice system will likely already mandate that he or she be detained pending determination of the criminal charge.  

For individuals accused of non-serious crimes, the decision to grant a bond and the bond amount is determined by a judge who evaluates whether that person will refrain from committing future crimes and show up to future court hearings. The judge can look at the person’s immigration status as one factor in the analysis.

This is consistent with how the federal government makes bond decisions across the country in immigration cases. In order for a person to be released from immigration detention they must prove they are not a danger to the community and not a flight risk. There is no reason local criminal judges cannot competently conduct the same analysis.

Our default as a society should always be liberty. Just because someone is an immigrant doesn’t mean our criminal law should apply any differently to them. As our Constitution states, all people should be treated equally. Our democracy is founded on the principle that people are innocent of crimes until proven guilty.

For immigrants convicted of non-serious crimes, such as traffic violations, they should complete their sentence and then be released. This ensures that people who have committed minor infractions are not automatically penalized with deportation, thereby building trust that law enforcement will respond to criminal action in a reasonable and proportional manner.

Our criminal justice system has developed to reflect what our communities view as serious v. non-serious crimes. Those in the halls of power should trust our system more and not pass legislation that takes away the power of local communities to decide their future.

Sara Ramey is Executive Director at the Migrant Center for Human Rights in San Antonio, Texas. The views in this article are not intended to reflect the official position of the organization.


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