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Meet Houston’s Latino Police Chief Standing Up to Texas’s Anti-Immigrant “Show Me Your Papers” Law

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Is a new “show me your papers” law in Texas hurting public safety even before it takes effect on September 1? Senate Bill 4 makes it a Class A misdemeanor for local law enforcement officials to limit cooperation with federal immigration agents. The law requires police to comply with detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and also allows officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they detain. Law enforcement leaders say the crackdown on immigrants has already led to a decrease in Latino victims reporting crimes. A judge could decide as early as this week whether to put SB 4 on hold due to constitutional violations. We speak with Houston’s first Latino police chief, Art Acevedo, who has already seen a decrease in Latino victims reporting rape—even as rapes reported by non-Latinos increased, and with reporter and Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Texas, where there’s growing concern that a new “show me your papers” law targeting immigrants is threatening public safety even before it goes into effect on September 1. Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 into law in May, making it a Class A misdemeanor for local law enforcement officials to limit cooperation with federal immigration agents. The law orders police to comply with detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their jails, and also allows police officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they detain, not just arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: In Houston, police say concern about the crackdown on immigrants has already led to a decrease in Latino victims reporting rape—even as rapes reported by non-Latinas increased. A judge could decide as early as this week whether to put SB 4 on hold. Meanwhile, a “summer of resistance” is underway by immigrants and their allies. This is 17-year-old Magdalena Juarez speaking during a quinceañera-themed protest at the state Capitol in Austin.

MAGDALENA JUAREZ: When SB 4 goes into effect on September 1st, it will allow law enforcement to ask people who look foreign for their documentation. It will force public officials to enact Trump’s mass deportation agenda, and may make some victims of crime too scared of the law to seek help. The bottom line is, SB 4 makes simply being brown illegal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Texas Governor Abbott has defended SB 4, saying it is meant to ensure public safety. But the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently reported that a group of teenagers told police they carried out a string of robberies that targeted Latinos, quote, “because they’ve got money and they don’t call the police.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today, we’ll look at what police, who have to enforce SB 4, are saying about the law. This is an excerpt from a video report by The Intercept that features a formerly undocumented immigrant who’s now a Houston police officer. He says he doesn’t plan to ask people for their legal status.

JESUS ROBLES: My name is Officer Jesus Robles. I was born in Michoacán, Mexico, a little city called Jacona. I came to this country when I was a child. It took me over 20 years to finally get my citizenship. It’s not as easy as people think. Most of us are out there to serve and protect. Most of us are not here with an agenda to be looking for immigrants or undocumented people. And most of us are not too excited about this whole situation, because we do know that it’s going to be a little more difficult to get cooperation from people on simple, simple things.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz for The Intercept.

Well, for more, we go to Houston, Texas, where we’re joined by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. He’s also vice president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and co-authored an op-ed from Texas police chiefs that ran in newspapers statewide ahead of the vote on SB 4, headlined “Do not burden local officers with federal immigration enforcement.”

We’re also joined here in New York by Renée Feltz, Democracy Now! correspondent and producer, who first covered this story for The Intercept, headlined “Texas Police Say 'Show Me Your Papers' Law Is Damaging Public Safety—Before Even Taking Effect.” Her report for Rewire is headlined “Texas Mayors, Police Officials Speak Out Against Immigration Law While They Still Can.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Police Chief Acevedo, let’s begin with you. You are the first Latino police chief of the most diverse city in the United States, Houston. This law has just been passed in your state, SB 4, that goes into effect on September 1st. You believe it hurts public safety, even before it’s gone into effect. Can you explain?

ART ACEVEDO: Well, because we’re seeing it on the ground. You know, you just had Officer Robles on, that works in a predominantly Hispanic community, and they are seeing people are hiding, they’re moving into the shadows, and they’re not cooperating. Even legal residents, lawful residents, U.S.-born citizens, who might have, may have undocumented family members, are starting to not want to cooperate, because they’re afraid to be deported. So, we’re seeing it. The numbers speak for themselves. It’s not just rapes that are not being reported. It’s all violent crime. And through the second quarter of the year now, we’re seeing the same trend. Words matter. The debate’s been very mean-spirited, and I think people are running scared.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chief, when you talk about the numbers speak for themselves, could you go over some of those? We’re seeing—you’ve seen an increase in reported rapes and crimes by non-Hispanics, but when it comes to Hispanics, there’s been a sharp drop?

ART ACEVEDO: There’s been a sharp drop. In rapes and sexual assaults alone, the reduction has been 42.8 percent, while the rest of the community, the numbers have gone up. The same holds true, to a lesser extent, I think about 13 percent increase, with a decrease for all violent crime.

And, you know, that’s the unintended consequence. When you start trying to create the perception that front-line law enforcement officers, who should be focused on public safety, are now going to become ICE agents, you cannot argue with the fact that it’s going to have an impact. Perception matters. And the perception that SB 4, and the debate leading up to this law, has created is that we are going to be required to be immigration agents, which that’s not the truth. I mean, that’s not a fact, but it doesn’t matter. You cannot—we just can’t seem to convince the immigrant community that they need not to fear us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the Texas House chamber in April, during that debate on whether to amend SB 4 and let local police ask for the immigration status of anyone they detain, such as someone who reports a crime. This is Texas state Representative Mary González addressing her fellow lawmakers before they vote, after she had just described her experience as a survivor of sexual assault.

REP. MARY GONZÁLEZ: I’m asking you to be as brave as me, who has survived it all and still made it here. I know it will be hard sometimes back in your campaigns. I get that political reality. But let me tell you this. It’s harder sometimes to be a survivor. It’s harder to know that the women and children who are going to be affected by this will feel disconnected from law enforcement. …

To my friends on this floor, if you ever had any friendship with me, then this is the vote that measures that friendship. That you can vote for this amendment, then you think it’s OK for women, for children not to be able to go to law enforcement and be protected in their most vulnerable time in their lives. That you’re willing to take that risk, then I hope you never talk to me again, because this is people’s lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Texas state Representative Mary González. And after she spoke, they did in fact vote for that amendment. Police Chief Acevedo, can you talk about what you have seen and what she is talking about, very bravely speaking out as a survivor herself and a legislator, and then how—if you could explain in full what the overall law does?

ART ACEVEDO: Well, the law actually prohibits us from telling our officers they cannot ask about immigration status at the point of detention. And what we’ve seen is what we knew we would see, that folks are now not wanting to cooperate with law enforcement. And, you know, the unintended consequence is that today’s witness or victim, that may be undocumented, doesn’t come forward, may not be able to help us prevent a future crime of another American-born resident, you know, whether a child at the bus stop that might get kidnapped, so on and so forth.

And so, you know, there’s a reason all of law enforcement came together here in Texas, all the big city police chiefs. We urged the party of law and order to not handcuff us, to not hurt our efforts. And despite our strongest words and editorials and everything else we did, they just ignored us. And so, you can’t be the party of law and order and then turn around and ignore labor groups in law enforcement and law enforcement leadership that together said no to SB 4. And it fell on deaf ears, sadly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Renée, what is some of the nature of the challenges being raised by the NAACP, MALDEF and other civil rights groups about this law?

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, it’s interesting. We’re seeing a summer of resistance. We don’t always hear from police officers, and yet they’re speaking out. And on the other side, we see a push in the courts, by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. And what they’re saying is this law violates the Constitution in several ways. Texans are big fans of the Second Amendment, but not necessarily the First, in this case. They are perhaps restricting the right of public officials and law enforcement officials to speak out. What about the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure? Police are concerned that immigrants who have a detainer put on them, while they’re in their jail, are being held longer than they should be, violating their right to release, in that regard, violating the Fourth Amendment. Then there’s other amendments—for example, the Equal Protection Clause. Is this law targeting Latinos in Texas unfairly? And then, finally, what about the law that struck down—helped to strike down a similar law in Arizona, which is the Supremacy Clause, this idea that the federal government has the right to enforce immigration and states cannot determine that instead?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, although Chief Acevedo is speaking out against this law, activists are calling for police to take more steps against SB 4.

RENÉE FELTZ: That’s right. You know, they’re calling for police to look at how a traffic stop can be a pathway to deportation. For example, if someone is stopped by a police officer in Texas and they are undocumented, they’re not going to have a driver’s license. They can’t get one. Well, in that case, should an officer use discretion and let that person—maybe have someone pick them up and take them home? Or should they be given—should they be arrested? Maybe they could be given a ticket or a citation and let go. Similar arguments have been made for young people who might violate a curfew, or other incidents where there’s petty offenses that are being carried out, similar to what police in other cities target under the “broken windows” or “stop-and-frisk” policies. They’re saying make these policies ticketable offenses or give people a warning and let them go, and reduce the number of interactions between police and immigrants that way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chief Acevedo, what are you hearing from your officers out in the field about how this is going to affect their own police work, in terms of the resources you have and the crimes that you have to deal with on a daily basis?

ART ACEVEDO: Let me tell you, police officers and labor, labor groups and labor leaders, and police chiefs sometimes don’t agree on the time of day or the day of the week. In this instance, we were lockstepped against this law, because we have limited resources. We know that violent crime is starting to creep up nationwide in a lot of our big cities. And the last thing we need is to have a chilling effect on community policing, on community policing that’s been the cornerstone of the last 20, 25 years of policing, that’s really led to historically low numbers in terms of violent crime. They don’t want something put on the table more for our officers to have to deal with. And most importantly, they want to not have that impact on the public that we serve and really rely on most to keep this community safe from not coming forward.

And so, there’s—when you see labor leadership and law enforcement and police chiefs together on something, that’s really a clue, it’s a hint. It means that it’s probably not a good idea what—we’re going down this path. And sadly, unless the court intervenes, we have to be prepared to follow the law beginning September 1.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Chief Acevedo, explain exactly—you face, yourself, a $25,000 fine, if what?

ART ACEVEDO: If I order my officers not to cooperate with ICE or limit their ability to actually ask the question. Now, but I’ll tell you, you know, at the end of the day, racial profiling will not be tolerated. We can’t tolerate it. And how you enforce this law without racially profiling is beyond many of us. So, we’ll see what happens, but our folks are well trained, they’re focused, they want to keep Houston safe. And they know that going after, you know, cooks and nannies and gardeners and people that, but for their immigration status, don’t bother anybody is not in the best interest, and it’s something we’re just not interested in.

AMY GOODMAN: Renée Feltz?

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, I just want to say, in conclusion, that as the police speak out, as the ACLU and MALDEF pursue this lawsuit, and as the summer of resistance continues, we’re already seeing a downturn not only in people going to police, but even approaching social services, going to food banks. Studies have shown that the numbers are down there from immigrants, as well. So we’re talking about an issue of access to food, in addition to services, for young people.

And the final point I wanted to make is that many people are expressing concern about the immigrant community coming forward to police, but many of these families, including those that I spoke to while I was in Houston, are from families with mixed status. So sometimes their parents have legal status and the children don’t. And they’re very concerned and afraid in the schools. And so, we’ll see what happens with Judge Garcia’s decision. It’s a Clinton appointee. And, hopefully, we’ll continue to follow this.

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