Lay off Fort Worth police for common-sense approach to Texas immigration law | Opinion

Texas’ law to allow state and local officers to police illegal immigration is on hold in the courts again, at least as of Friday afternoon. But the debate continues to rage, and the Fort Worth Police Department has landed right in the middle of it.

Police Chief Neil Noakes said Monday that the law would not change the department’s mission and that immigration enforcement is primarily a federal and state job. He emphasized, though, that police would follow the law. Based on the reaction from some, you’d think Noakes had declared Fort Worth a sanctuary city.

Of course, he did no such thing. What Noakes did merely stated the obvious truths about illegal immigration and the limitations of the pending law, known as SB4. It does not demand or even create the opportunity for local departments thousands of miles from the border with Mexico to do much. That’s because of two huge factors: the need for officers to have probable cause to suspect an immigration crime and the statute of limitations on the new misdemeanor the law creates.

Noakes also implicitly acknowledged that officers will need orders and guidance for the law, if it’s ever in place, and how to interact with immigrant communities who often need protection from serious crime and can help with investigations of the larger ills stemming from bad border policies.

SB4 remains on hold in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after a ping-pong match involving the Supreme Court sparked days of confusion over where things stand. Suffice it to say for now that the law still faces a substantive review that, to our view, will likely end with judicial affirmation that Texas cannot take on the federal job of immigration enforcement, even when the feds are failing at it.

It’s a bad idea to try. Redirecting law enforcement resources to interdict drugs and even to try to set up barriers to entry are one thing. But state taxpayers are in for billions of dollars at this point. Asking local police and magistrates to do the complicated work of immigration enforcement is a burden that few can handle or want.

Law officers should not pick and choose which laws they find palatable. But that’s not what Fort Worth is doing here. Noakes and city leaders are trying to balance interests, including the very real priority of ensuring that tens of thousands of residents, even if here illegally, must be able to trust that they can reach out to law enforcement when they need help — especially when they have knowledge of crimes greater than their own.

What’s an individual officer to do? In no case should one be demanding papers that prove citizenship or residency. Perhaps they must ask someone they encounter about immigration status to evaluate a situation, but most departments try to avoid that, and people have a right to not answer.

So, what would probable cause look like for an officer who didn’t witness someone violating the law — that is, crossing the border illegally? It can’t be, as some activists have darkly warned, as simple as speaking Spanish or even just being Hispanic. If an officer does something like that to try to build an immigration case, he or she should be fired.

Proponents have mentioned scenarios in which someone voluntarily tells an officer that he or she is here illegally. Even then, though, the law cannot be enforced if the person has been here more than two years. Prosecutors will have to consider whether such cases are worth the effort. Even a conservative district attorney such as Tarrant County’s Phil Sorrells would have to think long and hard about the cost and whether there’s better use for the county’s strained jail resources.

Even the law’s Republican author, Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro, said it was crafted more for use in policing the current deluge at the border, not to try to remove people who have been here for years or decades. He told the Texas Tribune that he did not anticipate cities far from the border having many cases.

But don’t listen to us. Noted immigration hawk Bill Waybourn, the Tarrant County sheriff who was once called upon by the Trump White House to speak on the matter, said in December that the bill primarily affects border counties and that he didn’t anticipate much impact on his office.

So, before throwing epithets like “woke” at Noakes because he dared to include in his statement a benign line about diversity, consider that he’s doing exactly what his job calls for: evaluating competing pressures to determine the best priorities for keeping our community safe. Turning his department into an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t do that.

If you’re angry about immigration, and you should be, blame Washington. If you hate the new state law, as many do, take it out on Austin.

But Fort Worth isn’t responsible for any of it.