The Sanctuary Smokescreen

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Photo by Jen Reel
A protester in the Capitol rotunda

Sixty-five year old San Antonio resident Jaime P. Martinez has been involved in the civil rights movement for more than 40 years. In 1999, he helped pass a bill to designate a holiday in remembrance of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.  He once escorted Rosa Parks to a political meeting and marched and fasted beside Chavez for farm workers rights in the sixties. Martinez knows how to give a fiery speech about equal rights for all citizens. But when it comes to this 82nd legislative session, he almost can’t conjure the words to describe his disappointment. “I have never seen so many anti-immigrant, anti-human bills introduced in Texas,” he said. “I’ve been active for 44 years in politics and this is the worst.”

Martinez was at the Capitol on the opening day of session to protest the “racist and discriminatory bills,” that had been filed. To date at least 40 bills have been filed, addressing immigration issues. Martinez is the founder of the Cesar Chavez Legacy and Education Foundation, which raises money to help  migrant farm worker children attend school. Martinez and about 100 others held a pro-immigrant rally on the Capitol’s south steps. They held signs that read “No Human Being is Illegal” and chanted “Raza Si, Racismo no!”  Awkwardly, their rally started after a Tea Party rally, where members advocated for Arizona-style immigration laws. One holdover from the Tea Party rally yelled “Go home illegals” at Martinez and the group, as she left the Capitol, swinging her purse.

Martinez blames incendiary language on talk shows and the radio, which he says has created “a lot of myths about immigrants, which has created hatred.”  He also blames the bad economy. People are angry and the people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder have become convenient scapegoats.

He was specifically disappointed by a bill recently filed by a new State Representative from Odessa that would do away with the Cesar Chavez holiday, which he and others had worked so hard to get passed. “This is Texas, not Arizona,” he said. “And we can’t reverse the progress we’ve made in education, housing, civil and labor rights.”

As we spoke in the Capitol Rotunda, Governor Rick Perry was addressing legislators in the Senate Chamber. The state has a $27 billion budget shortfall, which means already meager state and social services will be “scrubbed” from existence. So, what’s on the governor’s emergency agenda? Sanctuary cities.  Talk about a political smokescreen.  It reeks of the same empty political pandering as his infamous zero-based budget in 2003, the last time we had a huge budget crater. The zero-based  budget, which quite literally was nothing more than a bunch of zeros, was appropriately mocked by the former dean of the House Paul Moreno as political theater “… all symbol and zero substance: a zero-based budget based on zero solutions.”

The notion of fighting sanctuary cities in Texas is an old political bluff that should be retired. During the recent gubernatorial race, Perry accused Bill White of running a “sanctuary city.” But I’m almost certain that Rick Perry’s heard about the Department of Homeland Security’s program Secure Communities, which the feds plan to have in every jail by 2013.  Bill White’s Houston was the first city in the nation to adopt the program back in 2008. Anyone taken to jail already has their citizenship status checked. If they aren’t a citizen they are turned over to immigration.  Just a few months ago, a study came out finding that Texas cities deport more immigrants under this program than most other regions of the nation. “Liberal” Travis County has the nation’s highest rate of deporting people with misdemeanors, a higher rate than Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County.

That’s a funny kind of sanctuary. So why then are sanctuary cities an emergency priority?  Why not the crisis in mental health services? El Paso’s mental health agency has already announced it will run out of funding by June. Fixing this crisis, by the way, is at the top of law enforcement’s list of priorities for the legislative session, not checking Texans for passports and birth certificates. Back at the Capitol rotunda Jaime Martinez shakes his head. Politicians just don’t get it. “They have to represent all of Texas, not just some Texans,” he said. Governor Perry should remember that.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.