Waco city and police officials are trying to assure immigrants that they have nothing to fear from legislation that took effect Friday intended to combat so-called sanctuary cities.
Police Chief Ryan Holt said he’s concerned that Texas Senate Bill 4 will discourage residents without legal immigration status from calling for help or reporting crimes.
“What concerns me is that people might be reluctant to come forward because they’re worried about their status,” he said.
He said police will not start pulling over or arresting people for immigration violations, which are federal matters beyond the jurisdiction of local police.
“We just don’t think we’re going to change what we’ve been doing,” he said.
SB 4, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in May, is intended to require local enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in certain ways, but a federal judge temporarily blocked key parts of the law Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said a provision requiring local law enforcement to honor all federal immigration “detainers,” or requests to turn criminal suspects over to federal immigration authorities, violates the Fourth Amendment.
He also blocked a vague provision that prohibits “a pattern or practice” that “materially limits” immigration enforcement.
But the judge left in place another controversial element of SB 4: allowing police officers to ask the immigration status of those they “lawfully detain,” including through routine traffic stops.
The law actually prohibits police chiefs and other city officials from telling officers not to ask such questions.
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But that doesn’t mean Waco police officers are about to make inquiring about immigration status a habit, Holt said.
The chief has drafted a new general order for police that requires them to make a detailed report each time they ask such questions, explaining why it was necessary.
“We want there to be an intentional paper trail,” he said. “I don’t think it will be common at all. It has not been our practice. It certainly has not been our practice with victims or witnesses. We want them to feel comfortable reporting crimes to us. Even for the suspect, that status hasn’t been in our purview. … We take a person into custody based on state and local law.”
Opponents of SB 4, including several Texas cities and the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that allowing police officers to question legal status opens the door to illegal racial profiling.
Waco immigration attorney Susan Nelson agrees.
“SB 4 makes it a crime for a police chief to tell officers not to ask about immigration status and leaves it up to police officers,” Nelson said. “That’s a recipe for racial profiling.”
Holt said the reporting requirements will help the department monitor officer decisions on when to ask for immigration status, as will body cameras that the police department is preparing to buy.
Nelson said she has seen some cases in rural counties around Waco in which unauthorized immigrants have been arrested on traffic offenses, such as driving without a license, then put into removal proceedings.
Holt said that’s not a practice in Waco. Typically, someone driving without a license will be cited for a Class C misdemeanor but not arrested. The exception would be if a driver lies about his or her identity, which is a criminal offense.
Holt said the Waco Police Department will continue to be available to assist federal immigration authorities during enforcement actions if requested, but its role is to maintain public safety, not to make the arrests.
Holt said he doesn’t know if crime reports by unauthorized immigrants have dropped in recent months and years, but he said it’s possible.
“I don’t have statistical evidence of that, but I’ve had anecdotal stories related to me that trouble me,” he said. “I’ve heard that people are unwilling to go out to the grocery store because of our current political climate. We try to reassure them they shouldn’t fear normal things.”
He said he has spoken to community groups and tried to ease fears about immigration enforcement issues.
“We want to do the things that enhance our community relations, and whatever that takes is what we’ll do,” Holt said.