FORT WORTH, Texas (RNS) — For the past two years, Mexican immigrant Ricardo Ortiz felt he had an advocate.
Pope Francis, speaking via satellite, had praised Ortiz for “the way you gave everything you could as a boy, when you supported your family.”
Now, the 21-year-old Ortiz — like numerous other Hispanics in Texas — worries about how the Lone Star State’s immigration enforcement crackdown may make his family a target.
While Ortiz has a temporary work permit, his father and mother lack proper documentation. A new state law — set to take effect Sept. 1 if it survives legal challenges by major Texas cities — would allow a police officer to inquire about his or his parents’ immigration status in a routine traffic stop.
“It’s basically people-hunting. It’s like the new sport here in Texas, and the sponsor is Texas,” the Houston resident said of Senate Bill 4, a controversial measure banning “sanctuary cities” — local governments that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration laws.
“To me, it’s very racist, and I don’t know how people are able to look past that. I don’t understand how people are able to vote for that.”
Bishops for Texas’ 15 Roman Catholic dioceses — comprising an estimated 8.4 million parishioners statewide — are among the law’s harshest critics, maintaining it “neglects Christ’s call to welcome the stranger and undermines our nation’s heritage to offer the light of freedom to the oppressed.”
The bishops recently developed a resource guide explaining their opposition and providing a “know your rights” checklist on how immigrants can exercise their Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections.
“There’s so much confusion in the immigrant community about what this law means to them, so the bishops hoped that this would help address some fears that people might have with the facts about the issue,” said Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.
Safety and security?
Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson this month called for the instructional materials to be included — in English and Spanish — as a bulletin insert at all 90 of his diocese’s parishes. More than half of the diocese’s nearly 900,000 Catholics have Latino surnames, according to the bishop.
Olson is a longtime friend of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s first Catholic governor in more than 150 years, and gave the benediction at Abbott’s 2015 inauguration.
Olson and other bishops unsuccessfully lobbied Abbott to reject Senate Bill 4, which requires local governments to comply with federal immigration laws and creates criminal penalties — including possible jail time — for officials who fail to comply.
In a May 7 bill-signing ceremony on Facebook Live, Abbott said he supports legal immigration but not “harboring people who have committed dangerous crimes.”
“The law is about the safety and security of Texans, and criticisms to the contrary are not based in the reality of what the law says,” John Wittman, the governor’s press secretary, said in response to the bishops.
Asked if the immigration law had strained Olson’s relationship with the Republican governor, Olson said, “In terms of the friendship, I don’t doubt the governor’s integrity as a man. We agree to disagree.”
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a Catholic Republican, points to criminal arrest data compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety as justification for the law.
According to the data, between 2011 and 2017, more than 150,000 undocumented people were charged with crimes ranging from homicide to sexual assault to theft.
“You’re talking about being able to prevent 800 murders,” said Rinaldi, who made national headlines in May when he and Democratic colleagues got into a physical scuffle over the new law.
But in a column published last month in The Monitor, a newspaper in the South Texas border town of McAllen, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores wrote: “It is not the case, as the governor and others argue, that only criminals need to fear SB 4. … People are now afraid that pretexts will be invented so that they can be stopped and asked about their immigration status. Yes, the law prohibits discrimination and profiling, but the immigrant poor are not likely to have the resources or the counsel needed to defend themselves.”
‘A fishing net’ for undocumented residents
Margarita Morton, an immigration lawyer and parishioner at St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth, said immigrant mothers are terrified they’ll drop off their kids at school and never see them again.
“If people knew the impact, you would take stronger measures to make sure the laws are targeting the people you want it to, and not just making it a fishing net in the ocean where you grab whatever is in there,” Morton said.
The Fort Worth bishop voices fear that the new law may put an undue burden on police officers and create a climate of mistrust between migrants and local law enforcement. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that teens who carried out nearly a dozen robberies targeted Hispanics “because they’ve got money, and they don’t call the police.”
“I think a lot of people who are here are frightened. It seems to cast too wide of a net,” Olson said of the law. “We have to continue to work for comprehensive immigration reform, and I don’t think Senate Bill 4 is a step in that right direction.”
Texas has an estimated undocumented immigrant population of roughly 1.5 million, out of a total population of 28 million.
Debate over the Texas law coincides with tough talk on immigration by President Trump, including his push to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and his court-challenged executive order barring refugees from six Muslim-majority nations deemed terrorism threats.
At a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston — the group’s president — extended a bishops’ working group on immigration, citing “the continued urgency for comprehensive immigration reform, a humane refugee policy and a safe border.”
A son’s love
Pope Francis recently tweeted: “Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, and war.”
Ortiz, the immigrant who talked to Francis, was 4 years old when his parents brought him to the U.S. The family came on a visa but stayed after it expired.
When Ortiz’s dad got hurt in a work accident, the teen earned money to help provide for his struggling family — including three younger brothers, two born in the U.S.
“When I spoke to the pope, I told him my story,” Ortiz said. “Something that I keep real close to my heart is that he told me God had made me a father before my time, but the only reason he did that was because I had a father that taught me how to be a good father. … I can really connect with that.”
Ortiz’s love for his father makes accepting the new Texas law all the more difficult, he said. He describes his father as a patriotic sort who taught his children at early ages to respect police and honor the U.S. flag.
“He’s kept a clean record. He raised us the right way,” Ortiz said. “Now, the people he taught us to look up to are the people who can deport him and decide what his future is.”