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Texans await fate of law that would allow detainment of suspected illegal immigrants

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Texas, border communities await the fate of a law that would allow police officers to detain anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally. The measure has been temporarily blocked by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, but many are bracing for what it could mean for people living at the border and elsewhere in the state. NPR's Sergio Martinez-Beltran reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, or St. Lucas Lutheran Church, in Eagle Pass, Texas, is just 3 miles away from the border with Mexico. Sundays here start with a song and a welcoming prayer from Pastor Julio Vasquez asking God to bless the immigrants who are making their way into the U.S. after fleeing poverty and war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIO VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Last year, this area saw the highest number of migrants crossing along the southern border. The numbers have gone down significantly, but there's still a heavy presence of law enforcement.

If Senate Bill 4 goes into effect, local and state police would be allowed to detain migrants they believe are in the country illegally. During today's homily, Vasquez talks about how God wants to implement peace in people's minds and souls. However, there are some storms heading this way, he says.

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: He says there's a risk that ethnicity could be improperly used to stop people in this community, which is 95% Hispanic, and now many are fearful. Rashaan Soto is 19 years old. He's from Eagle Pass, a place he loves. He attends the local community college.

RASHAAN SOTO: I'm here studying my criminal justice associate's.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Soto says, since SB 4 passed last year, he prepares before leaving his house.

SOTO: So now, everywhere I go, I always carry my state ID with me. I was born and raised here in Eagle Pass and, well, why would I need to prove my residence if I was born and raised here?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Others outside the border counties feel the same way. The law, as it's written, could be enforced statewide.

NABILA MANSOOR: That includes the big cities where Asians tend to reside in.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Nabila Mansoor is the executive director of Texas-based Rise AAPI, an organization that advocates for Asian American communities. She says many in the state are nervous about potentially being racially profiled by law enforcement.

MANSOOR: There is just right now this initial kind of, like, bewilderment that such a law could even exist 'cause it goes against - just viscerally goes against so much of what we've been taught about being a free American citizen here in this country.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: The measure is part of Texas governor Greg Abbott's efforts to deter illegal immigration - a job that traditionally falls under the purview of the federal government. Three years ago, he deployed the state National Guard to patrol the Rio Grande as part of Operation Lone Star, his border security initiative. When asked for a comment, Abbott's office referred NPR to statements the governor made when he'd signed SB 4 into law last year. He dismissed concerns of racial profiling, saying law enforcement agents know that is wrong. And some people at the border say the law is needed to lower the numbers of unauthorized crossings.

SELENE RODRIGUEZ: There's nothing disincentivizing this massive illegal immigration. There's hundreds of things incentivizing it.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Selene Rodriguez is a native from Del Rio, another border community about 55 miles from Eagle Pass. Her family still lives there. She now works for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.

RODRIGUEZ: So when you have a bill like SB 4 or other type of legislation that is meant to disincentivize that, that's exactly what we want.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: And this policy has the backing of a large section of voters. According to a recent survey by The Texas Politics Project, 62% of registered voters support making it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to be in Texas. Joshua Blank is the research director of the project, which is part of the University of Texas at Austin.

JOSHUA BLANK: That's made up overwhelmingly of Republicans - 87% who support it - but also 55% of independents and 39% of Democrats. So there is bipartisan support for the provisions of SB 4.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Back at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Pastor Julio Vasquez shows me a crumpled blue-and-white Spanish-language Bible that is on display near the altar.

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Vasquez says the Bible belonged to a migrant who was washed away when attempting to cross the Rio Grande. When he opens the Bible, the page says...

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: "A cry of anguish."

Vasquez says that's the cry of the migrants trying to cross the border and of those already in Texas who might end up arrested because of the new law.

Sergio Martinez Beltran, NPR News, Eagle Pass, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán (SARE-he-oh mar-TEE-nez bel-TRAHN) is an immigration correspondent based in Texas.