Is San Antonio a so-called "sanctuary city"? The answer from the city this week has been a resounding "nope."
But that doesn't mean San Antonio isn't on a collision course with new immigration-related mandates stewing at the both the state and federal levels. That's because regardless of whether the city calls itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants, the San Antonio Police Department still has policies on the books directing officers not to ask people for proof of citizenship or legal residency in routine police encounters. And under a bill being considered at the Texas Legislature, SAPD would have to rescind that policy or face a possible loss of state funding if it decides to keep it.
Couple that with the new immigration crackdown coming from Trump Administration, which is aimed at increasing local law enforcements' role in enforcing federal immigration violations, and you get one very frustrated police chief. On a Thursday night panel discussion at UTSA Downtown, SAPD chief William McManus reiterated that San Antonio is not a sanctuary city, but that he also doesn't want his officers to in any way become an arm of federal immigration enforcement. McManus called the state bill that would upend his department's policy on dealing with immigrants "damaging to local law enforcement," and asked that the state please stop "meddling in local police departments."
Meanwhile the uber-conservative on the panel, the Heartland Institute's Jeff Judson, insisted "sanctuary city policies are undermining our safety" and argued local police departments shouldn't put up barriers to cooperating with federal immigration enforcement (Judson, it should be noted, made fear-mongering over undocumented immigrants a centerpiece of his failed campaign
to unseat Texas House Speaker Joe Straus). Judson's right-wing counterpart, Bexar County Republican Party Chair Robert Stoval, went on to make the fact-devoid claim that San Antonio's rise in violent crime
last year had something to do with the kind of policies that Chief McManus wants to keep.
McManus then tried to illustrate how inane the "sanctuary cities" debate has become. If SAPD finds reason to arrest you, or you have a local or federal warrant out against you, you'll still be sent to the city's detention center, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents already routinely check on people in custody ("people who are wanted on very, very serious felony-type charges, and I'm OK with that," McManus said). Down the line, the Bexar County Jail will still run your fingerprints through a federal database, ICE can still find you, and, if the feds request it, jailers will still hold you (even if your local case has been resolved or your charges dropped) if ICE wants them to.
As McManus put it, "I'm not sure what good it does asking a bank robber what his immigration status is."
And yet the policy being proposed by state lawmakers would still target cities like San Antonio — all because local police want a policy telling officers that immigration enforcement is not their job. And it's not as if police officials like McManus oppose anti-sanctuary cities legislation out of some moral stance against the broken immigration system. Rather, McManus argues that alienating a city's large immigrant community makes it very difficult for police to do their jobs: solve local crimes. SAPD needs immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, to feel comfortable enough to come forward when they're victim or have knowledge of a crime.
McManus also seems to understand the community's fear that making immigration enforcement the purview of local police could lead to racial profiling. If local cops are now free to inquire about immigration status, how do you decide when to ask that question? "Do you base that on the color of their skin?" McManus said. "On an accent?"
"People are already afraid of the police," the chief added. "To force us to ask about immigration status is just going to reinforce that."
State Rep. Diego Bernal, a former San Antonio city councilman and civil rights attorney, meanwhile said he fears how the Trump Administration's new executive actions on immigration could further weaponize the kind of anti-sanctuary cities legislation Texas is proposing. "I'm really, really concerned about how these two things work together."
Sure, San Antonio's not a sanctuary city right now. But some, like Bernal, think now would be a pretty good time to go ahead and make it one. "If we decided to do that, I would welcome it," he said.