The Damage Done by SB 4
Court records reveal impact of the "show me your papers" bill on immigrant lives
Jordy Balderas couldn't stop checking his phone to ensure ICE hadn't snatched up any of his family members. In the weeks following February's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin, his eyes scanned social media channels and online community groups for the latest news. The intense distraction caused the 17-year-old Rundberg-area high school student's grades to slip, and teachers began noticing the added stress. "When the raids happened the only thing going through my mind was wondering if my family was safe," he told the Chronicle. "When I called and they didn't answer, I would immediately panic. My grades went from As and Bs to Cs and close to failing."
Balderas lives with a mixed-status family, comprised of documented and undocumented Austinites – some children, some adults. His family moved back to Mexico for a short while but eventually fled to escape the drug cartel violence. After the sweep of ICE arrests earlier this year, his family stopped shopping at H-E-B and Wal-Mart; they refrained from visiting other family members; and even forwent needed medical visits for their physically ill 3-year-old, all due to fear that ICE may be lurking around the corner. "My younger family members, who are 3 and 5 years old, could lose their mom and dad if our noncitizen family is deported," he said. "It's painful to think about."
His story is just one of many. A fall down stairs at school badly bruised one of Jassary Rico-Herrera's relatives; the incident went unreported and untreated due to similar fears. To prevent interactions with law enforcement, her North Austin mixed-status family plans to give away their pet dog, whose loud barks could elicit police intervention that may lead to deportation. The KIPP Austin Collegiate graduate's mental health suffered in her senior year as she became anxious worrying about the prospect of a deported family. Others stopped attending class altogether out of fear that ICE may approach them or their parents at their schools. It's no wonder then that absences at Austin public schools jumped by an alarming 152% after the ICE sweep, as revealed during recent court proceedings.
Rico-Herrera and Balderas say the looming threat of anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 exacerbates their families' insecurities and has transformed their day-to-day lives into a constant state of distress. If SB 4 is enacted, Balderas says, he and his family would no longer be comfortable reporting crime to APD. And despite his U.S. citizenship, Balderas worries his dark complexion guarantees he'll be racially profiled, adding understandable trepidation to even short car trips. "The police are going to be able to ask for my papers just because of the way I look and sound," he said. "This law is going to traumatize a lot of people every time they get stopped." The state law, set to take effect Sept. 1, would punish so-called "sanctuary cities" that don't fully cooperate with voluntary ICE detainer requests, and allow police officers to inquire about the citizenship status of individuals they detain, as in routine traffic stops – an inevitable open door to racial profiling.
In court documents, the two students, along with other community members, paint a sobering picture of the widespread and devastating impact the impending law has already had on the Austin community. From a strain on direct community services to unreported domestic and sexual abuse incidents and an eschewing of public health, legal filings present mounting evidence that SB 4 has already seeped into virtually all areas of life for local immigrants, complicating basic tasks and adding unprecedented stress to daily life. Texas cities, including Austin, are currently pleading with a federal court to halt the law before it unleashes its full potential ("SB 4: Texas Cities Get Their Day in Court," June 30), but in the meantime a broad swath of the community has retreated into the shadows.
No Longer Safe
A woman was drugged and raped by her landlord – but since the incident she has lived in fear of calling the police because of her citizenship status. After learning that filing for divorce turns your information into public record, another woman felt she had no choice but to stay with her abusive husband. A third declined to seek protection in a shelter, heeding the threats of her abuser, who vowed to report her to ICE and have them abscond with her child.
The string of disturbing stories from local callers highlights how SB 4 has "definitively increased fear in the clients we serve," said Kelly White, CEO of SAFE Alliance, a nonprofit that offers resources to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in Travis and surrounding counties. Most SAFE clients (57%, or 3,550 people) identify as Hispanic or Latino, a population made even more vulnerable by the upcoming law. SAFE staff reported a "dramatic and noticeable" spike in clients expressing heavy unease to report abuse and violence of any kind or to seek therapy, send children to school, or participate in legal proceedings. The staff has doubled up efforts to remind clients that they don't ask about immigration status or require anyone to report to law enforcement (outside of mandatory obligations), but the apprehension is fervent. "It feels like open season on undocumented immigrants," said White. For many of these abuse victims, notifying the authorities is no longer an option.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley shoulders that concern. At community forums, he's listened to residents expressing fear of interacting with law enforcement, specifically APD, and heard deep concern from colleagues that abuse victims and witnesses of crime may be hesitant to come forward. He, like most metro police chiefs, believes SB 4 will "undermine the bonds of trust" he has worked hard to establish between APD and the immigrant community.
A chilling example out of Ft. Worth highlights the grave dangers of laws that further exploit immigrant populations, who often feel helpless when it comes to reporting crime. A string of a dozen robberies carried out by teenagers in east Ft. Worth targeted Latinos "because they've got money and they don't call the police," one of the suspects told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. On July 1, taco vendor Jose Ontiveros intervened in one of the robberies and was shot in the abdomen. The 58-year-old died six days later. The death struck a deep chord with Democratic Rep. Ramón Romero, who told the Chronicle he lived just a few blocks from Ontiveros. "For many, the Latino community is easy prey," he said. SB 4 will undoubtedly lead to more instances like the one in his hometown, said the Ft. Worth lawmaker. In an idealistic move, he's filed legislation for the special session to repeal the upcoming law. He hopes by now legislators have had enough time to digest the tangible impact and unintended consequences of the law. "There are drastic effects that are violent and can even cause death in our community," said Romero. "Lawmakers that support SB 4 will be responsible for the blood of every victim that falls prey."
Evidence also suggests local undocumented immigrants have evaded medical appointments, forgoing basic preventive care, a problem that places not only their health and well-being in danger, but that of the entire community. For instance, more than 80% of clients at Austin-based People's Community Clinic are Hispanic. Since December 2016, the clinic's "no show" appointment rate increased to an average of 18%, from as low as 12%. When news of the ICE raids and SB 4 made headlines, that figure shot up to 28%. The number of clients making appointments has also dipped. The decreases in service cost the clinic money, leaving a lasting budgetary footprint. Moreover, the trend negatively impacts public health and will place a "substantial burden" on emergency care services and other local medical care providers, said Regina Rogoff, head of PCC. Fear of deportation could lead to children forgoing immunizations and the spread of preventable contagious diseases, leading to a possible public health crisis. Rogoff and staff are "very concerned" that if SB 4 goes into effect their patients and the organization will suffer "serious and irreparable harm."
The panic around SB 4 is also hurting participation in direct community services targeting low-income residents, from food pantries to housing services. "We have heard, anecdotally, that some people are being deterred from our services because they fear action by ICE at food distribution sites," says Paul Gaither, a spokesperson for the Central Texas Food Bank, which serves 21 counties including Travis, Williamson, and Bastrop. "People in need are always welcome. We don't turn anyone away based on national origin, race, or citizenship." As political science professor Tom Wong testified during federal hearings against SB 4, the prospect of the law coupled with the ICE raids caused a 21% drop in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) participation, a government nutrition program aimed at helping low-income pregnant women, new mothers, and infants.
Legal testimony also reveals that low-income tenants are now more reluctant to contact the Austin Code Department to disclose unsafe living conditions, as they perceive those authority figures as suspicious, according to local tenant rights group Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA). Meanwhile, some property managers have reportedly threatened to call ICE on tenants, preventing serious security issues from being logged with local police. The number of those living in substandard housing without remedy in a city plagued by an affordability crisis is expected to increase as a result of SB 4, community leaders warn.
In addition to direct services, advocates and attorneys predict that SB 4's state and local economic impact on the food service, tourism, and construction industries will be devastating, and similar in nature to North Carolina's anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill. In Texas, an estimated 1.1 million undocumented immigrant workers comprise 8.5% of the state's total labor force, largely working in the hospitality, agriculture, and construction industries, according to the Pew Research Center. Consider the employees of Peruvian restaurant and community gathering spot Lima Criolla (previously La Chaparrita), an Austin establishment since 2010. Staff say they're ready to pack their bags for "more welcoming environments" in New Mexico or Nevada before SB 4 goes into effect, as many have undocumented family members, according to owner Susana Vivanco. "So many people I know in the hotel and restaurant industries here are facing real hard times," she told the Chronicle. "Our whole economy is going to be affected."
Some advocates, including longtime Texas civil rights attorney Jim Harrington, have called on conventions, major sports matches, and events to boycott Texas and take their tourism dollars elsewhere in protest. The 15,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association is leading that charge. AILA has held their national conference in Grapevine, Texas, since 2010 – a gathering that rakes in $3-5 million for the local economy. Now, the event is being relocated out of state and the group is eating a "substantial cancellation fee," because the board couldn't ask its members or their families to attend a conference in a state that upholds a law that is "unfair and unjust." Locally, Roland Swenson, co-founder of South by Southwest, which injected $325.3 million into the local economy last year, is "gravely concerned" that participation from U.S. citizens who oppose SB 4 and foreign nationals will decline. (Two U.S. senators urged SXSW to withdraw from Texas until officials revoke the law, but Swenson insists the conference will stay and fight discriminatory legislation, saying Austin is SX's home.)
It seems as though no place has gone unscathed in the war against immigrant communities, even sacred places of worship – an especially paradoxical trend as those legislators who propped up the hateful law preach conservative Christian values. City Council Member Pio Renteria has seen a drastic drop in attendance at the Holy Family American Catholic Church's Spanish service since the introduction of SB 4, with an estimated quarter of churchgoers skipping out. The impending law has "made our families feel so insecure that they are afraid to worship at their spiritual home," Renteria lamented.
A Strong Case
In a San Antonio federal court last month, U.S. Judge Orlando Garcia heard a snapshot of these community stories, filed as affidavits, during a hearing on the lawsuit against SB 4, brought by San Antonio, Dallas, El Cenizo, El Paso County, Houston, and Austin. Austin City Council Member Greg Casar's office helped assemble some of the testimony, a compilation of conversations he's had since the November election. The office, whose district is home to more immigrants than any other district within the city, has received several calls and emails from constituents inquiring about guardianship forms (in case of deportation) or relaying plans to leave the state. "I think the horror stories and fear are real and palpable," said Casar. "The list could have probably gone a lot longer if it weren't for time constraints."
Garcia has yet to rule on the request for a preliminary injunction, but with the predictions logged by critics of SB 4 already coming to fruition well before the law officially goes into effect, cities are confident in their chances. "I think our case clearly and convincingly presented how SB 4 on its face will damage the liberty and security of people across that state," said Casar. "It's ironic how the state claims the law is about public safety but never presented any evidence showing it actually promotes public safety. All they have to ride on is their xenophobia without explaining how the criminal justice system works."
On a hopeful note, Casar, echoing advocates, said the discriminatory law isn't just about repression, but also about resistance. The groundswell of organizing and protest around the legislation from the immigrant community – locally and statewide – has uplifted and empowered those facing the obstacles ahead. Balderas issued a reminder to those in his shoes to remain vigilant and undeterred. "I think it's important to let people know just because this might become law, it doesn't mean we're losing power as Latinos, as minorities. We just have to keep fighting even harder."