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‘Things Have Changed’: A New Texas Anti-Immigration Measure Feeds Fear of the Police

SB 4 encourages officers to ask for the status of anyone they detain.

El Paso Police Facebook Page

‘Things Have Changed’: A New Texas Anti-Immigration Measure Feeds Fear of the Police

SB 4 encourages officers to ask for the status of anyone they detain.


One morning in 2014, a woman in El Paso, Texas, went to visit her baby at a Department of Family and Protective Services child protection office. The woman had mental health issues, and the state had custody of her child. When the baby was brought to her, his diaper was filthy and he looked ill and neglected. Distraught and seeking help, the woman called the El Paso Police Department.

Officer Martina Elizalde responded to the call, but she did not calm the situation. Instead, she made it worse.

Elizalde asked the woman for identification. When the woman showed a Mexican consular card, Elizalde asked her whether she was in the U.S. illegally and threatened to call the Border Patrol. A screaming match erupted and ended with the woman filing a complaint with the Police Department against Elizalde for asking about her immigration status.

Elizalde had behaved inappropriately. The El Paso Police Department officers in 2014 did not ask people about their immigration statuses when responding to calls for service. Department regulations forbade racial and ethnic profiling and bias.

Elizalde had longstanding problems with these issues. In 2011, she was reprimanded for calling an African American co-worker a racist epithet. During an investigation into her behavior at the child protection office, her co-workers revealed that Elizalde often threatened to call the Border Patrol on people and sometimes did. She also regularly used epithets against immigrants, such as “fucking maggots.” Elizalde received a 16-hour suspension, which was later reduced to 10 hours after she appealed.  

A new anti-sanctuary law

In 2017, three years after Officer Elizalde was disciplined for asking the woman about her immigration status, Texas passed Senate Bill 4, often called SB 4. It’s a draconian law that allows fines and even criminal charges to be levied against public officials, including police chiefs, who ban their officers from asking about immigration status when they detain someone. SB 4 was introduced and passed by Republicans, who touted it as a remedy to illegal immigration and pushed it as an “anti-sanctuary” law.  

SB 4 is a draconian law that allows fines and even criminal charges against public officials who ban their officers from asking about immigration status.

While SB 4 encourages police to ask for the status of anyone they detain, on paper it still protects victims and witnesses from immigration inquiries so as not to deter people from reporting crimes. SB 4 specifically prohibits police from requesting immigration papers from people who call police for assistance or who witness a crime.

A recently filed court case by the state of Texas challenges that prohibition. The main defendant in the case is San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, who was sued Nov. 30 by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The suit responds to an incident in San Antonio in December 2017, when McManus arrived at a scene where 12 people had been found in the back of an 18-wheeler. The driver admitted to committing a crime: smuggling the people north after they crossed the Mexico border.

McManus could have asked the 12 people about their immigration statuses and turned them over to ICE, but he didn’t. Instead, he contacted nonprofit immigration lawyers to help the group get special visas that are available to undocumented immigrants who are crime witnesses or victims of crime. McManus’s actions were widely publicized, and Paxton responded by suing the police chief. He cited as one  reason SB 4’s prohibition against police departments “adopting, enforcing, or endorsing policies, patterns, or practices that prohibit or materially limit the enforcement of immigration laws,” for example, by discouraging local law enforcement from helping ICE or Border Patrol agentswhich Paxton says McManus did with his officers .

But McManus’s attorney, Nina Perales, said that McManus did not keep police officers from cooperating. She pointed out that SB 4 allows officers to make up their own minds about whether to help ICE and Border Patrol.

Paxton’s suit seeks as much as $11.6 million in fines from McManus and the city of San Antonio.  Meanwhile, in another lawsuit, several Texas cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are suing the state over SB 4, hoping to have the law overturned. Rulings in both suits are pending, Meanwhile, what SB 4 allows and disallows is confusing, especially to the public.

Afraid to report crimes to the police

Immigrants rights advocates and researchers worry that the law may do more than confuse—it also may further discourage Latinxs from filing complaints. Research has been done on how Latinxs react when cooperation ramps up between local police and federal immigration agencies.”A program called Secure Communities expanded in 2013 to nearly every jail and prison in the country. It created a database that automatically shared the fingerprints of everyone admitted to custody with ICE.. That agency can then detain anyone whose prints are of interest and put the detainees into deportation proceedings.

Secure Communities and similar programs appear to have made Latinxs increasingly afraid to contact the police. For  a study published in 2013 by the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers interviewed Latinxs in the Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Chicago areas about their attitudes toward the police in the wake of new programs such as Secure Communities. Forty-five percent of respondents said that newly enacted police-ICE cooperation made them less likely to to report a crime to the police—because they feared that officers would ask about their immigration statuses or those of people they knew. Forty-four percent of respondents said they would be less likely to contact police if they were the victims of crimes.

Forty-five percent of respondents said that newly enacted police-ICE cooperation made them less likely to to report a crime to the police.

Fear of the police was not confined to immigrants. In the 2013 study, 28 percent of the U.S.-born Latinos who responded said that they, too, were less likely to contact police.

In El Paso, whose population is more than 80 percent Latinx, researchers have found evidence that residents have for years been affected by law enforcement inquiries into their immigration status.

University of Texas at El Paso sociologist Maria Cristina Morales co-wrote a study that asked El Pasoans in 2014 whether they had ever been questioned by a law enforcement officer about their citizenship. More than 20 percent of respondents said yes.

The researchers were surprised that proportionately more native-born children of immigrants reported this experience than did first-generation immigrants. Morales said she thinks that native-born Latinxs may be asked more frequently because they are out and about in the city—while their immigrant parents may be staying in their immigrant-enclave neighborhoods, afraid to leave because they fear law enforcement. Morales’ study was done the same year when El Paso Officer Elizalde started the row with the troubled young woman at the child protection office.

Josiah Heyman says he believes it is now very difficult for a marginalized Latinx like that woman to challenge police attempts to ask about immigration status—much less successfully file a complaint. Heyman is a former board of directors president of the Border Network for Human Rights, an immigrant-rights nonprofit in El Paso. He is also a University of Texas at El Paso anthropologist who studies Latinx communities and immigration enforcement.

Heyman said that with SB 4 in place, it would take “somebody very on top of what’s going on, with access to a lawyer,” to defend themselves against questioning and threats like Officer Elizalde’s and to make a complaint.

Things will be looked at differently” now if someone complains about an officer asking about immigration status.Sgt. Enrique Carrillo, spokesperson for the El Paso Police Department

As for law enforcement, “SB 4 at the very least could make an organization like the El Paso Police Department more reluctant to do something about a complaint about Border Patrol or ICE being called during a service call,” Heyman said. “They have to weigh, ‘How much trouble are we going to get into with the attorney general about SB 4?’” With the new law, Heyman said, “Things have changed.”

Sgt. Enrique Carrillo, a spokesperson for the El Paso Police Department, used identical language. “Things have changed,” he said. “Things will be looked at differently” if someone complains about an officer asking about immigration status. Carrillo said he does not know whether any such complaints have been filed since SB 4 was enacted.

Meanwhile, Elizalde is still an El Paso police officer. The Appeal asked the department to explain why someone who has been disciplined more than once for biased policing would be allowed to remain on the force. The department did not respond. The Appeal also asked to interview Elizalde but received no response.