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Immigrant families on edge amid uncertainty over new Texas law

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune

Immigrant families on edge amid uncertainty over new Texas law” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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ODESSA — Maria del Carmen’s body went stiff in her living room Tuesday night when the television news broadcast announced yet another update on the new Texas immigration law. Her eyes were glued to the screen as she tried to make sense of the bold letters.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that Senate Bill 4, a new law authorizing police to arrest people who officers suspected of having crossed into Texas from Mexico anywhere other than a legal port of entry, could take effect. The 37-year-old grabbed her phone and texted her husband, who reassured her, saying everything would be okay.

Hours later, a new headline appeared on her phone: Another court had stopped the law from going into effect.

“Truthfully, I don’t understand it,” said del Carmen, who left her home in Durango, Mexico nine years ago and crossed the border into Texas. “They pass it and stop it, and I don’t know what to think.”

It’s a familiar sentiment among many families in Odessa, a predominantly Hispanic West Texas city, as they try to keep up with the legal chaos that has ensued since the Legislature passed the law last fall.

Under Senate Bill 4, crossing the border could result in a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail. Repeat offenders could be charged with a second-degree felony, which carries a sentence of two to 20 years. The law says that state judges must order migrants returned to Mexico if they are convicted, with local law enforcement officials responsible for that trip. Should a migrant return voluntarily, the judge could drop the charges.

In response, the U.S. Department of Justice and immigrant rights groups sued Texas, arguing the law was unconstitutional because it interfered with existing federal immigration laws. Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United American Citizens, or LULAC for short, said the organization would “fight [SB 4] in the courthouse until they render it unconstitutional.”

“Immigration is solely a federal matter, not to be taken on by the state,” Garcia said.

In the meantime, the organization is advising people to ignore the noise until the fate of SB 4 becomes definitive, Garcia said. “The average immigrant who’s undocumented, they’re going to continue to work and feed their families,” Garcia said.

The law’s authors said it is not meant to target immigrants already living in Texas, only those who have recently crossed. Its supporters have portrayed it as an effort to put more border security power in the state’s hands, given what they see as the Biden administration’s failure to address record levels of illegal immigration. But locals both undocumented and naturalized said they feel anxious and defeated.

Rosie Luján, a lifelong Odessan whose parents immigrated from Ojinaga, Mexico 43 years ago to give their kids a chance at a better life, gathered with her family in Luján’s childhood home in Odessa’s south side, a Mexican enclave, on the night the nation’s highest court allowed the law to take effect.

Luján, who was born in Ojinaga and was three years old when she arrived in the U.S., says the law makes them feel that it won’t matter how hard they worked to achieve legal status. Luján said she fears that her family members could be racially profiled if a police officer pulls them over.

Luján, who became a U.S. citizen in 2016, said she’s confident of how she would navigate an interaction between her and a police officer, she said, but she worries about her mom, Francisca, who is older and doesn’t speak much English. Her mom five years ago earned her U.S. citizenship, a milestone the family celebrated over a big dinner.

“It’s a humiliation for us Hispanics,” Luján said. “Just because of how we look.”

Immigration advocates said disorder is the point.

“Unfortunately, the chaos and confusion are almost the goal,” said Priscilla Lugo, an immigration advocacy strategist at the Texas Law Immigration Council, a statewide nonprofit providing legal services. “It’s making people who are already here scared, confused, nervous, and apprehensive about what it’s like to live in Texas.”

Anne Chandler, the organization’s president, added: “​​The law is on and off, and people are terrified. How do they protect their loved ones? Even as a lawyer, I’m confused. Everyone is on pins and needles.”

Federal Mexican officials filed an amicus brief Thursday in the lawsuit over SB 4 that said the law has instilled “fear, panic, and uncertainty” among the Mexicans residing in the U.S.

“The possibility that thousands of Mexican nationals authorized to study, work, and reside in Texas are now under threat of detention, removal, and criminalization — and the related separation from their families — upon any interaction with a Texas law enforcement official has engendered unprecedented levels of anxiety in the Mexican community,” the brief said.

In the days since the state of SB 4 unraveled, del Carmen has unplugged from the news cycle, turning off her television and leaving her phone vibrating in the room. Crouched on her porch, she plucks roses from her modest garden.

She has no relatives in the U.S. other than her partner, a Cuban man she met eight years ago in El Paso; he has legal status. They moved to Odessa five years ago to start a trucking business. Every month, she sends money to her family and pays for her daughter’s education, something she had not been able to afford back in Mexico, she said.

Because she’s still undocumented, she drives under the speed limit, always worried about being pulled over by the police.

Over the next few months, she plans to lay low. She has a follow-up appointment in July to change her immigration status — she has applied for permanent residency, also known as a green card.

“I really don’t know what to think,” del Carmen said. “Maybe there are too many of us, I don’t know. But I understand why they come here, looking for a better life. I know because I’m one of them.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/21/texas-immigration-law-senate-bill-4-court-rulings-odessa/.

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