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Government/Politics

San Antonio Police Say Sanctuary Cities Bill Threatens Public Safety

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Ryan E. Poppe

The Texas Senate is considering  a "sanctuary city” bill that would encourage local law enforcement to take a more active role in checking the immigration status for people they come in contact with.   
 
The San Antonio Police Department, and others across Texas,  have organized to fight the bill saying it would interfere with public safety.

On the Westside of San Antonio, Police Sgt. Javier Salazar drives past neat, colorful houses that are home to immigrant families. He points to an older housing complex decorated with murals that include paintings of Cesar Chavez, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Hispanic workers.

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
Housing projects on the Westside of San Antonio

“A lot of these people take pride in their homes. So it’s not that they are looking for a handout, they’re looking for a hand up. So this is St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, it’s in heart of the neighborhood, this Hall is where we meet,” said Salazar, pointing to a group of housing projects.

The meeting Salazar is talking about is for a community outreach program called UNIDOS, which was formed to bring police and the Spanish-speaking community closer, by answering questions residents may have about immigration policy, city ordinances and civic responsibilities.

The sergeant remembers how the program encouraged one woman, who is in the country illegally, to come to the police with a problem. “Our worker came and approached her, and began asking her, ‘What’s wrong, I noticed that you’re crying.’ The lady reluctantly opened up to her and said, ‘My son and I are undocumented and he got arrested the other night and I don’t know where he is, for all I know he could be deported.’ She said, ‘For all I knew, you guys were going to arrest me as soon as I walked through the door, but someone told me you could help me so I am here’,” Salazar recounted.

San Antonio Police Chief Anthony Trevino says the UNIDOS program is part of an effort to change the perception San Antonio’s immigrant community might have about police. “Their perception, in terms of law enforcement, is vastly different from the realities of law enforcement here in San Antonio. I think that in some of those countries [the immigrants are from] their perception of police is one of brutality and corruption,” Trevino said.

The police want residents to know they aren’t risking deportation if they contact officers to report a crime. San Antonio’s written policy says those reporting crimes will not be referred to federal immigration authorities.  Officers do not ask people they contact for proof of citizenship. The policy says immigration status is not a basis for arrest.

State Sen. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, believes that kind of policy makes San Antonio a so-called sanctuary city, one that provides too much protection for people who are here illegally. Perry believes police have a sworn duty to uphold all laws, including federal immigration laws.  He’s filed a bill that would prevent cities like San Antonio from having policies that prevent officers from asking about immigration status.

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
Senator Charles Perry, author of SB 185 Sanctuary Cities Bill

“Those people that are coming out against it. It’s strange to me that they could argue they’re not going to enforce the law and put a policy in place that keeps someone from enforcing the law that’s sworn to uphold the law, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Perry.

The nonprofit group, the Remembrance Project, supports Sen. Perry’s bill. Group members blame immigrants here illegally with killing their family members, and they want more accountability. Laura Wilkerson testified in front of the Senate’s subcommittee on border security about her son Josh, who was killed in Pearland, outside of Houston. “An illegal immigrant classmate asked Josh for a ride home and Josh gave it to him. And when he did he beat Josh in the head.  The District Attorney believes the reason why is he probably wanted to scrap Josh’s truck for money,” Wilkerson explained.

But San Antonio’s police chief said it might become far more difficult to solve crimes in the immigrant community if Sen. Perry’s bill becomes law. Immigrants would be more reluctant to talk to authorities.

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
St Timothy's Catholic Church -- Home to the UNIDOS program in San Antonio

On the Westside, in St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, Martin Medina and his wife Mari Cruz Paloma, confirm that. They’re from Coahuila, Mexico, but have been living in San Antonio for 20 years.  Medina has a residency card but his wife doesn’t. Father Mike DeGerloni, the parish priest and a community leader with the UNIDOS program, translates for Medina.

“They believe they will still be vulnerable even if they report a crime, which is, of course, a double jeopardy for them. They’re victimized by crime and then victimized by calling to report a crime because they could still be deported,” Father Mike interpreted for Medina.

Perry’s legislation in the Senate will get far more scrutiny in the House.

But if the bill is signed into law, the San Antonio police department says they will be required to follow the law. They also believe that will negatively impact public safety for the city.