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History of Racism Against Mexican-Americans Clouds Texas Immigration Law

The state's attempt to target sanctuary cities is running into the state's racist past.
Image: Texas Segregation
Undated image shows Texas segregation sign in Dimmit, Texas. Signs like these were displayed under a system known as "Juan Crow" laws patterned after Jim Crow laws that enforced racial discrimination against Mexican Americans.Russell Lee / Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

SAN ANTONIO — When Texas leaders approved a tough new immigration enforcement law known as SB4, they did so in a state that has had a long, continuing and sometimes unacknowledged struggle for equity by the state’s residents of Mexican descent.

That struggle has existed since before Texas became a state and has ranged from mob violence and massacres — some perpetrated by the Texas Rangers — to voting and employment discrimination and school and housing segregation. More recently, courts have declared the state’s voter ID law and redistricting maps discriminatory.

Related: Texas’ SB4 Immigration Enforcement Law: 5 Things to Know

Supporters of SB4 balk at suggestions the immigration enforcement law may foster racism or encourage discrimination, but as they try to enact it on Sept. 1, it will be impossible to ignore the state's history of racism and the current challenges for Texans of Mexican descent.

"This is a step backwards in terms of having Mexican-Americans thought of as really U.S. citizens, as opposed to foreigners rather than interlopers."

Consider that, during the period from 1848 to 1928, at least 232 people of Mexican descent were killed by mob violence or lynchings in Texas — some committed at the hands of Texas Rangers, according to research by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, authors of “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States.” Texas led 12 states in killings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the authors solidly documented.

In addition, the effort to place Texas under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act was the genesis of the 1975 expansion of the act to extend its protections of voting rights of Latinos and other people who were then called “language minorities."

More recently, Texas’ voter ID law, enacted in 2013, has been struck down in a series of court decisions that found it discriminatory.

Also, Texas' education board only added Mexican-American studies as an elective course to its public school curriculum in 2014.

Related: Judge Again Finds Discrimination in Texas Voter ID Law

“For Texas it really has been a slow march to effective citizenship for Mexican-Americans,” said John Morán González, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at University of Texas at Austin.

González is one of the founders of the Refusing to Forget Project, which documented and created an exhibit for the Bullock Texas State History Museum on state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living on the Texas-Mexico border during 1910-20. Thousands were killed during that period.

The group touts its project’s mission as educating people about a forgotten period to “raise the profile of a struggle for justice and civil rights that continues to influence social relationships today.”

There’s no doubt Mexican-Americans have made great strides in Texas, where Latinos make up 40 percent of the state population and are overwhelmingly of Mexican descent.

Image: Texas Segregation
Signs like the one in this undated image were displayed at various restaurants and other pubic accommodations under a system known as "Juan Crow" laws.Russell Lee / Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

But historians and civil rights activists see a thread of historical racism and discrimination running through the implementation of SB4.

"This is a step backwards in terms of having Mexican-Americans thought of as really U.S. citizens, as opposed to foreigners rather than interlopers," González said.

Thomas Saenz, president and CEO of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights legal group, is more blunt. “This law has racism written all over it,” he said.

MALDEF, started in San Antonio, has been at the center of many of the state's Mexican American population's fights for equity. It represented the Edgewood Independent School District, a poorer in San Antonio, when the district challenged the state's public school financing system as discriminatory against poorer students, many of whom were Mexican-American or Latino.

The lawsuit led to an overhaul of the funding system. Years later state lawmakers are again trying to refashion the funding formulas for the state's approximately 5 million schoolchildren who are 52 percent Latino.

When MALDEF sued the state in 1987, only 10 percent of state funds for public universities went to the border region and South Texas, where many of the state's residents of Mexican descent live. The region also had only two doctoral programs. The suit led to state legislation to beef up higher education in the border region.

Image: Hundreds of protesters line the balconies of the state Capitol rotunda in Austin
Hundreds of protesters line the balconies of the state Capitol rotunda in Austin on May 29, 2017, the last day of the legislative session, to protest Senate Bill 4. Ricardo Brazziell / Austin American-Statesman via AP

“I do think there has been a continuous theme of ‘Mexican-Americans don’t deserve the same things everybody else has’ by the powerful," said Al Kauffman, a former MALDEF attorney who litigated the education cases and is now a professor at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio. "People are looking for ways to control the population."

Related: San Antonio Sues Texas Over SB4 Immigration Law

The organization is continuing its role of battling the state in court on behalf of Latinos. On Thursday, it filed suit on behalf of the city of San Antonio, three non-profit groups and a San Antonio City Council member to prevent SB4 from taking effect.

Saenz and plaintiffs in the case warned that the law will allow every law enforcement officer, booking agent and other law enforcement figures to "decide on their own without any guidance or restrictions from their duly elected and appointed superiors, police chiefs, sheriffs and elected officials ... whether and how to enforce federal immigration law."

A group of women demonstrating on the U.S. Supreme Court steps.
Women demonstrating on the U.S. Supreme Court steps prayed over Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund.MALDEF

Such "unfettered" and "arbitrary" policing will lead to discrimination against Latinos and other minorities, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, he said.

The struggles of Texans of Mexican descent have been so many they have made the state the birthplace of several Latino civil rights groups. In addition to MALDEF, some of those groups are the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, formed to protect voting rights of Mexican Americans. The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, was started in 1929 to fight the entrenched racism of the time and the American GI Forum was founded in 1948 to push for equal treatment for WWII Mexican-American veterans.

Racial Profiling Versus Immigration Enforcement

The dividing lines over SB4 are not as neat as white versus Latino. Texas has long had a significant Latino contingent willing to back tough measures on illegal immigration and border security.

But the anger SB4 is stoking and its potential for causing racial clashes was visible Monday when GOP state Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving, Texas, said in social media and told Mexican American Democratic legislators that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people protesting SB4 at the Capitol. Many protesters were Latino and some held signs that read, “I’m illegal and I’m here to stay.”

Rindaldi’s call — which ICE has said it is unaware of receiving — led to a shouting match, a near brawl and accusations of threats of violence from both sides.

Related: Texas Lawmakers Accuse Each Other of Assault, Threats As Hundreds of 'SB4' Protesters Disrupt Session

Defending the Mexican-American lawmakers’ response to Rinaldi, state Rep. Cesar Blanco, an El Paso, Texas, Democrat, wrote in in the Texas Tribune: “This isn’t about decorum. I’m a sailor; I can take the salty language. This is about whether we sit idly or stand up in the face of ethnic scapegoating, racial profiling and abusing the power of the state to intimidate the less powerful.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has trumpeted the law as a tool for public safety and one that will end so-called sanctuary cities, municipalities that regulate their law officers' enforcement of federal immigration laws and cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Opponents of such restrictions say cities release criminals that they should detain until they can be put in deportation and that puts public safety at risk.

SB4 allows for criminal penalties of up to $25,000 a day and removal from office of public officials, police chiefs, sheriffs and others who defy the law.

“Texans expect us to keep them safe and that is exactly what we are going to do by me signing this law,” Abbott said before he signed SB4 live on Facebook. He told NBC Nightly News that he knows the Latino community needs to feel it has nothing to fear from the new law because his wife and family are Hispanic.

"The only people who face any type of consequence are criminals ... We included in the law a ban on racial profiling, making it illegal," Abbott said.

A day after the law was signed, Texas sued MALDEF along with Austin's mayor and city council members and the Travis County sheriff for being "hostile" to federal immigration enforcement officers and not cooperating with them, even though SB4 doesn't go into effect until Sept. 1.

In a column written with two Latino law enforcement leaders — Victor Rodriguez, police chief in McAllen and J.E. “Eddie” Guerra, sheriff in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley — Abbott asserted the law won’t change how law enforcement already works in Texas and would only subject criminals to questioning about their status and condemned opponents.

“Whether driven by misunderstanding or by purposeful fear mongering, those who are inflaming unrest, place all who live in Texas at greater risk,” they stated in the column that Abbot said drew support from an additional 23 law enforcement officers, almost all Latino, after it was published.

However, the Texas Police Chiefs Association opposed SB4 while it made its way through Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature. The law also has drawn fervent opposition from a number of Latino leaders, lawmakers, organizations and residents.

“It’s too easy to racially profile [under SB4]. What is reasonable suspicion? Is it nervousness?” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a politically center-right organization that focuses on Latinos.

“If I’m jaywalking and I’m a U.S. citizen and I see a cop coming towards me, I might start thinking, what’s going on now?" Lopez said. "If a cop sees me as suspicious because I’m nervous, will I be detained?”

Is Discrimination Part of Texas' Identity?

Carrigan and Webb, the authors who documented mob violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, argue in their book that “uncovering the forgotten dead murdered by Anglo lynch mobs is therefore, less of a reopening of old wounds than a means to enhance mutual understanding in a nation where race remains one of the deepest fault lines.”

That can also apply to the debate over SB4, Carrigan said.

“My guess is there is a white perception and Mexican (and Mexican-American) perception” of SB4, he said. White Texans likely think it’s not deeply racist, but Texans of Mexican origin have a “longer, historical framework for understanding it: The Texas governor and Texas officers have not been a force we can trust for many, many years and we are going to view that in that context, with the lynchings and Texas Rangers in the background,” he said.

Luis Fraga, co-director of the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said what is happening with SB4, along with Texas’ recently toughened voter laws, “has to be understood in the context of what Texas has always been.”

Following the state’s revolution, Mexican Texans were soon excluded from “any meaningful place in the politics of Texas,” Fraga said. White settlers who were invited to Texas came from the South and brought with them their understanding of social relations between the races, he said.

Fraga points to Alamo defender and political leader Juan Seguín, who fought for Texas independence. After Texas became a republic, Seguín became mayor of San Antonio, but he was chased out by a white mob that thought he was colluding with Mexico. He had to flee to Mexico where he was considered a traitor, said Fraga who uses Seguín's story in his class teaching leadership on issues important to the future of U.S. Latino communities.

“This marginalization and discrimination against people of Mexican origin," Fraga said, "is at the heart of Texas’ identity."

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