Bill would bar Texas law officers from asking crime victims about immigration status

Posted Thursday, May. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Law enforcement officers would be prohibited from asking victims and witnesses in criminal investigations about their immigration status under legislation approved by the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, the bill’s sponsor, described the measure as “a law and order bill” that would encourage illegal immigrants, many of whom fear deportation, to report crimes and help officers in criminal investigations.

The bill, approved 8-4, exemplifies what appears to be a shift on immigration issues this session after divisive debates in 2011 over a voter ID bill and a “sanctuary city” measure that would have authorized local police to inquire about immigration status.

Another bill advancing in the House this session would allow people in the country illegally to get special permits to drive and obtain auto insurance if they pass criminal background checks and pay a $150 fee. That measure is authored by Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas.

“This session’s tone is completely different from last session’s tone,” Burnam said. “People are recognizing that there are fundamental questions and problems in our community that need to be addressed, and this bill is one of those issues.”

Three Republicans, including committee Chairman Byron Cook of Corsicana and Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, joined all five committee Democrats in supporting the measure. Four Republicans voted against it.

“What this bill accomplishes is to bring anybody and everybody under the law,” Burnam said. “And that means victims of crime and witnesses of crime have the opportunity of free exchange with our law enforcement personnel.”

House Bill 3738 has been endorsed by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who said it would help curb distrust toward law enforcement in Hispanic neighborhoods with large numbers of illegal immigrants.

“It is critically important for law enforcement to gain the trust of all segments of our population,” Acevedo said at a hearing on the bill last week. “It is simply a bill that will assure the immigrant population that police officers are there to investigate crimes and not to be an ICE agent.”

Acevedo also endorsed Alonzo’s bill, which was approved by the State Affairs Committee last week.

The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest law enforcement organization, has not taken a position on either bill, spokesman Charley Wilkison said.

Under Burnam’s bill, officers could not inquire about “the national or immigration status” of victims or witnesses unless the information is necessary to the investigation.

Burnam said the bill applies strictly to the reporting of a specific crime and does not grant immunity to illegal immigrants. Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.

Restoring confidence

Celina Moreno of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said during last week’s hearing that Burnam’s bill “would be a big step toward restoring the immigrant community’s confidence in police.”

“It’s simply good public policy to encourage people to come out of the shadows,” she said. Some immigrants, she said, feel “so vulnerable that they would rather keep quiet than risk being deported and separated from their families.”

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio also endorsed the bill.

Undocumented residents, she said, “are afraid to cooperate” with law enforcement “because of the fear that permeates the immigrant community.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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