OPINION COLUMNS

Walls won’t make us safer, only more suspicious

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, May 13, 2017
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Our society seems really obsessed with walls right now.

And I’m not just talking about the physical ones.

I was disappointed to see our governor sign Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities ban, into law Sunday night – on Facebook Live without any media present.

Gov. Greg Abbott claimed the bill is about keeping legal citizens safe from people in our country illegally, but the law has real problems. So much so, that it is already facing legal challenges and might very well be deemed unconstitutional.

The law basically takes local control away from local police agencies. It forces local officials to comply with a federal request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain a suspected unauthorized immigrant who has been arrested on an unrelated charge.

If that local official does not comply, he or she could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

So much for local control and small government.

No doubt there are many instances where a potentially dangerous criminal, who is also an unauthorized immigrant, should be kept in jail to protect the public.

But what about those who would pose no real threat? Will our local jails become holding facilities for ICE?

As if there is not already enough on the plate of our local law enforcement agencies.

The law is not popular with many law enforcement officials for other reasons, as well. The new law will allow officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status not just if they are being arrested but even if they are just being detained.

Last month members of the Texas Major Cities Chiefs and the Texas Police Chiefs Association published a letter opposing the bill. The letter outlines their concerns about how the bill will strain the relationship between law enforcement and diverse communities, particularly Hispanics.

The letter included the following observation:

“Distrust and fear of contacting or assisting the police has already become evident among legal immigrants. Legal immigrants are beginning to avoid contact with the police for fear that they themselves or undocumented family members or friends may become subject to immigration enforcement.

“Such a divide between the local police and immigrant groups will result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims, and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing crime.”

In other words, crime could very well increase among immigrant groups because victims could be afraid to come forward.

So who or what is actually being protected here?

Politicians’ jobs, of course.

The sanctuary cities ban is popular among many conservatives, and with Republicans controlling all levels of state government. It’s an easy win if you want to remain in office.

But at a time when our nation is hurting from divisions based on nationality, religion, race and political preferences, I fear this law will only serve to deepen those wounds without making us any safer.

Everyone can agree that we must do what we can to ensure the safety of American citizens. But we also must consider the cost that those safety measures will have on citizens.

We’ve probably all heard by now the concerns expressed by some Hispanic students following the election of Donald Trump last November. Many were afraid they’d be kicked out of the country, and some have even endured bullying from other students.

The words and actions of our elected officials have an effect on our communities. Divisive talk has consequences and serves to strengthen the walls between us.

If only there was a way to tear down those walls.

I was visiting with retiring Rann Elementary Principal Melonie Christian this week about a new program at the school where English- and Spanish-speaking students are taught together in the same class with both languages spoken. In addition to the academic benefits, she mentioned teachers have noticed that Hispanic and Caucasian students in the class seem much more inclined to play together at recess than students in the older grades who did not go through the dual language immersion program.

In this case, the language wall has been removed, and the result has been an inclusive atmosphere where students are allowed to define who they are rather than being defined by their skin color or language.

That’s how communities are supposed to work, and it is how many communities do work.

I only wish that our state and national political leadership would let our communities, including our local law enforcement, make decisions that didn’t include putting up more walls between us.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

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