Chief made right call on immigrants

January 13, 2018 GMT

There exists a state smuggling law. It’s difficult to imagine the state Legislature would enact the law without an expectation the state’s police officers would enforce it. Or was it just for show?

This is the crux of the matter in this controversy over whether the San Antonio Police Department erred when it released immigrants apparently being smuggled in a truck last week instead of handing them — and the case — over to federal immigration authorities.

Police Chief William McManus made the call.

It was a reasonable one.

Nonetheless, the move has raised the ire of some, including the head of the police union, who contend the chief was mistaken in particular for sparing the immigrants suspected of being trafficked background checks and fingerprints to determine if they were wanted on criminal charges.

And the incident has sparked a state Attorney General investigation after citizen complaints, Ken Paxton’s office said. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also called for an AG investigation.

Here’s the underlying factor, however. The chief credibly insists that victims or witnesses of crimes should not be subjected to background checks and fingerprints.

And this just makes sense. People who pay others to smuggle them and then are often used and abused for having done so are indeed victims. And they are certainly witnesses. Why cooperate if you know doing so will increase the possibility of being turned over to federal immigration authorities, being held in immigrant detention for an indefinite period and then possibly deported if your testimony isn’t ultimately needed and authorities don’t deem you a victim?

So, will it just be immigrants who are made to go through these background checks and fingerprinting or will all victims and witnesses be made to? If it’s just immigrants, there’s a term for that — profiling — and that opens up the police to legal liability.

Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES, the group taking care of the immigrants’ needs, said that in his view these immigrants are victims and that the suggestion that they are now not available to be witnesses because they weren’t handed over to the feds is particularly wrong. They are available, he said.

We get it. The state has a sanctuary cities bill that attempts to punish local officials who, essentially, don’t act as arms of immigration enforcement.

But this is under legal challenge and is a law that, in itself, is a bad idea. If it is allowed to be fully implemented, trust in local law enforcement by the immigrant community will erode. This means crimes unreported, witnesses not stepping forward and an already vulnerable community made more so.

Portions of that law — Senate Bill 4, approved in the last session — have been overturned and are on appeal. A portion punishing local officials who have policies preventing officers from inquiring on immigration status is still in place.

The chief, in a written response to Express-News reporter Jason Buch, notes a couple of other items. Homeland Security Investigations was notified after the incident was reported, an agent arrived at the scene one and a half to two hours after the police arrived, the agent was at the headquarters and given access to the 12 immigrants and no one stopped him or her from taking the immigrants into custody.

Homeland Security Investigations, while pledging to continue working with local law enforcement, responds that it “did offer up its assistance and San Antonio Police Department declined to take our assistance. Instead the chief elected to take the case.”

Something isn’t meshing here. But here’s the thing that should never mesh — local police enforcing immigration laws.

Crossing the border without documents is generally a civil, not a criminal, violation. That being the case, it makes little sense for the San Antonio Police Department, once it decided to enforce a state law on the books, to treat them as criminals, and this shouldn’t be done in any case if it’s plausible they are victims or witnesses.

Passions are high on immigration. In such times, immigrants are singled out as culprits —ignoring outdated laws that incentivize them to come without documents, the economic factors that make them essential to entire industries and the culpability of the people who hire them and the people who benefit from the goods and services they provide.

A suspected human trafficker is in custody under an existing state law. He may or may not roll over on others. Victims and witnesses are available to testify.

Some might call this solid police work.