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Councilman Rey Saldaña has become the first in City Council to publicly support how San Antonio Police Chief William McManus handled a recent human smuggling incident.
"I fully support Chief McManus’ process and protocol in handling incidents of human smuggling and trafficking," Saldaña said in a Monday press statement. "These procedures have long been spelled out in previous federal grants, and comport with best practices in dealing with victims and witnesses of crimes."
The December 23 arrest of a semi truck driver for smuggling 12 immigrants in his trailer has become particularly contentious for the way it was managed by the San Antonio Police Department. Instead of detaining all 12 immigrations and asking for proof of citizenship, SAPD treated the passengers
like any regular victim of a crime. After questioning the dozen as witnesses, officers handed them over to Catholic Charities, an immigrant aid organization.
"SAPD had no legal authority to hold the 12 individuals after they were questioned," McManus told the Current on Friday
. "The City may have faced legal liability if SAPD had done so."
In a move that's unusual for immigration-related crimes, McManus also decided to charge the driver, Herbert Alan Nichols, for breaking a state-level smuggling law rather than a federal one. That means U.S. Immigration and Customs Department isn't playing much of a role in the case — a stark contrast from ICE's involvement in San Antonio's July smuggling case
that left 10 passengers dead and 22 in ICE custody.
Saldaña applauded SAPD's decision to get Catholic Charities involved, instead of ICE agents.
"This not only heightens our public safety, as we need reliable and cooperative victim testimony to prevent future cases, and also respects the human dignity and constitutional rights afforded to everyone in our country," he said.
McManus's December decision may have been informed by the July case, which took place in Saldaña's district. In that incident, SAPD told the surviving passengers that if they cooperated with law enforcement, they'd be eligible for special visas allowed for victims of crimes. Despite this agreement, the victims were placed in detention to guarantee they'd stay in the area to testify against their smuggler. And on Sept. 5, all were arbitrarily dismissed and put into ICE custody. At least seven have since been deported.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley has also come forward to support McManus's decision. Councilman Greg Brockhouse is the only other member of City Council who has publicly commented on how McManus handled the December smuggling arrest. But he's not on Saldaña's side.
Brockhouse told the Current
he believed McManus had “more than enough probable cause” to assume the smuggled immigrants were undocumented — enough to prompt officers to at least run a criminal background check on the dozen, if not call in the feds.
“All I’m asking is that we make sure we’re not releasing a felon into the public,” Brockhouse said. “The policy can’t be on the fly ... based on what the chief feels like doing that day.”
He publicly questioned McManus’s decision in a Friday media release, suggesting the chief had dodged SAPD protocol and calling for an investigation into how the incident was handled.
But to Saldaña, immigration enforcement doesn't fall into SAPD's hands.
"As a local police department, we should devote our time and taxpayer dollars on combatting crime and ensuring public safety instead of enforcing immigration laws that are under the purview of the federal government," Saldaña said Monday, touching on the city's arguments against Texas' anti-sanctuary city law
(SB4) that's currently tangled up in a multi-city lawsuit. "If enforcing immigration laws is such a critical issue for the federal government, then Congress should decide just how many resources they are willing to allocate for this matter rather than overburden our local police departments and utilize our local taxpayer dollars.”