What does Texas’s anti-sanctuary cities law mean for undocumented East Texans — and for the rest of us?

On a warm Monday evening earlier this month, nearly 300 East Texans, mostly of Mexican descent, gathered at Cindy’s Event Center near downtown Tyler. They had come to hear Tyler police chief Jimmy Toler and Smith County sheriff Larry Smith try and calm their nerves about Senate Bill 4, the so-called “anti-sanctuary cities” bill signed into Texas law earlier this month.

Attendees greeted friends and neighbors, nervously shifted in their seats, and scribbled down questions for the officers in Spanish, handing them to an interpreter. Some had debated whether it was even safe to drive into Tyler for the event, fearing the panel was actually a raid-in-waiting disguised as community outreach. They’d heard Senate Bill 4 described as a “show me your papers” law, conjuring Casablanca-esque images of back-alley detainments and uniformed patrols vanishing people in the dark of night.

SB 4 won’t officially go into effect for another three months, but it’s already spread an undeniable chill through Smith County’s large Hispanic population. (The radio station La Invasora 96.7 has posted a full video of the dual-language event.)

Supporters of the bill say such fears are largely overblown, and to an extent, some critics agree. Senate Bill 4 makes it easier for officers to ask about one’s immigration status during routine stops, and forces them to hand undocumented citizens in custody over to the feds if requested. However, it includes a protection against racial or ethnic profiling. In theory, an officer can’t walk up to you and demand your ID if you’re not actively breaking any laws. (Simply being undocumented doesn’t count.) It also says victims or witnesses of crimes can’t be asked about their immigration status unless they’re suspected of other criminal activity.

But given the often bloody and ever-lengthening history of law enforcement officers behaving badly toward people of color, you’d be justified in feeling less than reassured by SB 4’s brief provision against racial profiling, which takes up just 50 of the bill’s 3,400 words.

Police chiefs of six major Texas cities and the director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association issued a warning along these lines in a joint letter published in major newspapers last month:

Broad rules, such as those imposed by SB 4, that push local law enforcement to take a more active role in immigration enforcement will further strain the relationship between local law enforcement and these diverse communities.

Officers would start inquiring about the immigration status of every person they come in contact with, or worse, inquire about the immigration status of people based on their appearance. This will lead to distrust of police and less cooperation from members of the community. And it will foster the belief that people cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration status investigation.

At the Cindy’s Event Center panel, Tyler police chief Toler and Smith County sheriff Smith acknowledged those fears and delivered a clear message for Hispanic constituents in their jurisdictions: we don’t want that to happen anymore than you do.

Dressed not in uniform but in casual suit jackets and ties, the two men said they’re not planning on changing any policies or doing anything differently when SB 4 goes into effect in September. If you’re undocumented in Smith County but not otherwise involved in anything criminal, they said, just keep living your life like normal. Run your errands, send your kids to school, and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to call the cops if you’re a victim or a witness to a crime.

In an interview with The Tyler Loop, TPD’s Chief Toler says there’s no room in his department for an officer who decides to “go beyond their authority and ask individuals about their immigration status based solely on their appearance.” But there are over 100 officers under his command; would the police chief know if something like that was happening? Toler says the department already has protocols in place to prevent systemic racial profiling from going unnoticed, like body cams, in-car radios, and regular performance evaluations. What’s more, he says, “an officer cannot choose to make an arrest during a traffic stop without supervisor approval.”

Chief Toler also encourages residents to alert the Tyler Police Department’s internal affairs division if they believe an officer violated the bill’s protections. “Some of the responsibility falls on the public if they’re seeing that happen,” he says, pledging that “no retaliatory actions will be taken on the part of the department” toward residents who contact TPD internal affairs. “Help us hold ourselves accountable,” he says.

Gilbert Urbina served as both moderator and interpreter for Toler and Smith at the SB 4 panel. He’s an immigration expert and counselor with the Hispanic American Association of East Texas (HAAET). He says the event did clear up some mistaken ideas about SB 4 in some of his clients’ minds — the sheriff and the police chief even got a couple rounds of hearty applause while answering questions from the audience. But he says the event didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind about whether their families have a future here in East Texas.

“They’ve been waiting for so long, hoping and hoping for another amnesty, like there was under Reagan,” says Urbina. SB 4 is just the latest in a series of signs that comprehensive national immigration reform isn’t coming down the pike anytime soon. Maybe the particulars of this bill are less scary than expected, but it’s hardly a welcome message nonetheless.

“They’re tired,” says Urbina. “They’re saying, ‘I’m gonna cut my losses, take my money, and go.’” He expects large numbers of Hispanic families to leave East Texas much faster than anyone seems to expect. “TISD schools let out on June 2nd,” he says. “On June third, you’ll start to see movement.”

“Just two months ago, nobody in my family was saying they were really ready to leave,” says Elsa, a 32-year-old undocumented kindergarten teacher at a local elementary school. She’s lived in East Texas since crossing the border with her mother at age nine, and has several undocumented family members in the region. “But I was talking to one of my cousins recently, and he said they just can’t take the pressure anymore of living in all this fear.”

Elsa says her family was under the impression that SB 4 was already in effect. She’s glad to hear that it’s still a few months off, and that local law enforcement leaders say families like hers have nothing to worry about. But it’s too late, she says. Some of her relatives have already halted plans to build or buy homes here, and are looking into real estate back in Mexico, instead. They’ve cut down on spending money at local shops and restaurants, saving all they can for the move. One of Elsa’s aunts recently arranged to have her truck transported across the border, a gesture that rippled through the family with a sense of finality.

Between undocumented out-of-towners feeling scared to drive into Tyler, and a potentially significant loss of population in coming months — 1 in 4 Tylerites is now Hispanic, as we’ve reported — HAAET’s Urbina says local car dealers and realtors he’s spoken to, both Latino and Anglo, are starting to panic about what SB 4 could do to their businesses. “One guy who owns a few small car dealerships has had customers say to him, ‘I have to give you back my car, and stop making the payments, because I’m leaving.”

Urbina says state lawmakers in Austin pushing anti-immigrant policies “don’t realize how intertwined we all are in Texas,” meaning Anglos and Latinos, documented and undocumented. “They don’t realize their businesses and their neighborhoods are going to be impacted, also.” He likens the situation to a surgeon attempting to slice away a tumor without noticing that it’s attached itself to other organs. “You can’t remove it without causing disruption and damage to the rest of the body.”

Perhaps undocumented folks in East Texas have somewhat less to worry about in Senate Bill 4 — and the rest of us have quite a bit more.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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