It’s time to call the “debate” over the Houston Police Department’s policy concerning illegal immigrants for what it is. Unfortunately anyone who believes this so-called debate, fueled by a group that calls itself “Protect Our Citizens,” has anything at all to do with the police or immigration is going to be disappointed.
On the surface, what members of this organization want is for the voters of Houston to authorize a change in police policy that would, in effect, require all Houstonians to prove their citizenship whenever they are ordered to do so by the police. They don’t advertise it that way, of course. They describe it as a means of enabling the police to become more aggressive in identifying illegal immigrants in our midst.
Designed to appeal to a narrow slice of our city’s voting population, this petition drive and possible referendum is built on the assumption that the people inclined to vote for it won’t ever be affected by the policy change because they “look like Americans.” Those who will be affected by it and will be forced to “show their papers” to the police don’t matter because they aren’t the target of this ugly effort at voter outreach.
The goal is not to make our city safe from the supposed scourge of illegal immigration, nor is to help the police solve crime. The goal is to increase turnout at the polls among this thin slice of voters – turnout that supporters calculate will benefit one political party over another.
I like to call this scapegoat politics. In scapegoat politics, you designate a certain group of people as somehow inherently evil and responsible for all the ills facing society. You then persuade your targeted voters that they must rush to the polls to support a ballot item that will eliminate this scourge and, while they’re at it, vote for certain candidates who are on the right side of this pressing issue.
In 2005, Republicans did this with the Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage in Texas. To this day I do not believe the Republican leadership gives one whit about gays who might wish to enter into legally binding monogamous relationships but by scapegoating monogamous gays they were able to persuade numerous conservative voters to come to the polls who might otherwise have stayed home.
This year, in Houston, the scourge of the moment is the illegal immigrant. And, let’s be honest, it’s not the illegal Canadian or British or French immigrant. It’s the illegal Latino immigrant (the one that doesn’t sufficiently “look” American). There is no need to have a real debate about the issues facing our community when you can persuade people that our crime and our economic challenges are all a result of our tolerance of this evil group and if we just get tough on them our city will, once again, be the land of milk and honey.
For evidence of just how cynical this is I need only to look to my immediate left when I am sitting at the City Council table. There sits an elected city council member who has long been either neutral or even somewhat sympathetic to the city’s immigrant population. Suddenly, she is one of the most ferocious supporters of this petition drive. It is merely a coincidence, she says, that her position radically changed at the same time that she was launching a bid for Congress the success of which requires the support of the very same people who will be inspired by this anti-Latino anti-immigrant effort.
Ironically, a victory for “Protect Our Citizens” would be a defeat for public safety. The police often desperately need the cooperation of the general public in their hunt for suspected criminals. If members of a certain segment of the general public know they are going to be forced to prove their citizenship every time they encounter a police officer, that cooperation is going to dry up. Those who are not citizens won’t cooperate because cooperation will mean possible imprisonment and deportation. Those who are citizens but don’t “look American” enough are also going to be less likely to cooperate because of the indignity of being forced to prove their bona fides due, solely, to their skin color or accent.
With less cooperation, our police officers will have a tougher time protecting all of us. In other words, the citizens who stand to be protected the most from the efforts of “Protect Our Citizens” will be criminals.
Illegal immigration is a serious issue facing the United States, but it is a federal issue. The Houston Police Department policy of assisting federal officials while not actively engaging in enforcing federal immigration rules is a healthy and balanced one. It enables them to work with all who live here to protect Houston, and it provides the federal government with sufficient support.
Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe our community should be engaged on the issue of illegal immigration and members of the community from all perspectives should be working together to discuss and debate it. But that is not the debate we have today. Instead, we have a group with a name that suggests a desire to protect us and make our city safer but whose actions will do nothing more than divide us and make it more dangerous.
Member, Houston City Council