A group consisting of elected leaders, San Antonio Police Department officials, and several immigrant advocacy groups convened at the Mexican Consulate on Thursday to clarify the role of local law enforcement in immigration issues. The group also worked toward a unified “know your rights” campaign as they prepare for the imminent rollout of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.

The meeting, which included opening remarks by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, was closed to news media, but those involved said that the focus for the City and SAPD was on current efforts, not what may occur once the new immigration enforcement law goes into effect.

“We tried not to go down the hypothetical path too long,” SAPD spokesman Sgt. Jesus Salame said.

The situation is still hypothetical because most in the room were hopeful that the new law will not withstand legal challenges. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed suit against the State of Texas, challenging the law’s constitutionality. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County have joined that lawsuit against Senate Bill 4, which allows local law enforcement officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they legally detain. The law also would punish elected officials who fail to honor requests from federal immigration authorities to hold certain individuals.

The plaintiffs have asked for a temporary stay of the law while the suit makes its way through the courts. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia has not yet issued a ruling on the injunction.

“I’m optimistic,” said Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who attended the meeting. Garcia has a strong track record of decisions that uphold the rights of undocumented people and their communities, and of those decisions being upheld in appeals, Saldaña said.

“We may not have to live with SB 4 for the year- or two-year process it would take to get to the [United States] Supreme Court.”

In the meantime, the passage of the law has created anxiety in the Latino community, Saldaña said. While a “know your rights” campaign under current law can assuage some of those fears, the meeting also provided some structure for a quick response in the future, should the injunction not be granted.

“We need to practice coming together,” Saldaña said. “In the event that we need to start formulating a new message or start understanding the implications of the law, we need be able to do that quickly.”

The working group meeting was planned long before the immigration issue gained national attention with the deaths of 10 people being smuggled into the United States in a sweltering tractor-trailer. The migrants were discovered Sunday morning in a Walmart parking lot on San Antonio’s Southside.

Police officers gather around the tractor-trailer and tow truck outside of Walmart.
Police officers gather around the tractor-trailer and tow truck outside of Walmart. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In the wake of the tragedy, RAICES, an immigration advocacy group, criticized SAPD for calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to the scene. SAPD maintained this was standard protocol in a human smuggling case, as the smuggler would face federal charges. The tractor-trailer’s driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was arrested at the scene and later charged with illegally transporting undocumented immigrants.

RAICES said that SAPD should have called in humanitarian aid, including legal and trauma counseling, before notifying ICE.

In order to keep the meeting from focusing too much on that tension, Saldaña said that officials from RAICES and SAPD sat down ahead of the working group to address the issues between them.

RAICES representatives declined to comment on whether their concerns were satisfied by the meeting. “There are still strong sentiments on how we handled that situation,” Salame said.

The immigrants involved in Sunday’s ordeal were smuggled into the U.S., a legal distinction that differs from human trafficking, even though officials initially referred to the case as one of trafficking.

Saldaña said the initial confusion over whether to enact protocols for human smuggling, as opposed to human trafficking, led to a new step in SAPD’s response protocol to situations like the one on Sunday. The Rape Crisis Center, one of the agencies considered capable of rendering humanitarian aid and counsel, is also qualified to classify an incident as one of smuggling or trafficking.

This step, Saldaña said, will allow law enforcement to render aid and address immediate needs without worrying about classifying the event themselves. 

Beyond the questions over protocol, the tragedy has heightened both the emotion and urgency of the situation, Salame said.  The incident touched the entire community, he said.

“I don’t know that anyone can look at that and not see that this is a reality for people – not a political theory,” Salame said.

That reality will change if the new law takes effect.

It would allow any local and county law enforcement agent to question the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the county illegally. 

Currently, SAPD and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department have policies in place that prohibit officers from inquiring about immigration status. Salame said that it is crucial for the community to know that if someone reports a crime or comes forward with information, the responding officer cannot and will not ask about immigration status. What the fear of being questioned about immigration status will do to public safety is a top priority for SAPD Chief William McManus, who took questions throughout the meeting, Salame said.

What surfaced at the event, Saldaña said, was that community members are confused about what the officers are asking for when they ask for “identification” during a traffic stop or other routine interaction. McManus reiterated that identification issued by a consulate or country of origin is currently sufficient in those situations.

Immigrant advocates raised the issue of municipal identification cards, which would provide a uniform ID mechanism and reduce uncertainty. Groups also discussed their plans for educating the public on what their rights would be under the new law.

Catholic Charities, which participated in the working group, has 10 “know your rights” volunteer training sessions planned between now and August 20, President and CEO J. Antonio Fernandez said. The organization is spreading the word throughout the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which extends into South Texas. In these heavily Catholic communities, parish networks are an effective means to disseminate information.

“People trust us mainly because we are connected to the church,” Fernandez said.

However, that does not mean that Catholic Charities plans only to extend services to Catholics.

“We don’t care if you are Muslim, if you are Jewish, if you are Presbyterian, if you are documented, if you are undocumented. Our only question is are you hungry, are you homeless?” Fernandez said.

As laws and policy change, Catholic Charities is working to address another need: legal help. Requests for the group’s legal services, Caritas, have increased by 30% in 2017, Fernandez said.

Saldaña said all who participated in the working group did so in a spirit of unity. Sometimes when missions overlap, agencies can be territorial, or defensive about whose approach is best, he said. Not so today.

“Everybody is well beyond personality or issues or tension,” Saldaña said. “Everybody is energized by the fact that we need to work lockstep on these issues.”

He applauded the efforts of former councilwoman and activist Maria Berriozábal. He also praised Mexican Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil, calling her a “godsend to our city.” Only three months into her post, Mendívil has played an active role in engaging the Mexican community living in San Antonio, facilitating outreach with local government.

“She’s been the most active ambassador in my memory,” Saldaña said.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.