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Law enforcement officials have been warning about the unintended consequences of President Donald Trump's immigration dragnet. They caution that it will further isolate immigrants who are in the country illegally. That includes crime victims and crime witnesses. In a number of U.S. cities, police and immigrant advocates say they're already seeing this play out. NPR's John Burnett reports from Houston.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Jason Cisneroz is a community service officer in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city. His job is to forge good relations between the police and Hispanic immigrants, a population typically wary of blue uniforms. And he's troubled.
JASON CISNEROZ: A couple days ago, there was a witness to a burglary motor vehicle. And she saw the suspects run to a certain place and - with items they stole from a car. But she was afraid to come to police because she was in fear that they was going to ask for her papers.
BURNETT: Unauthorized immigrants living in Texas have a double whammy. Under Trump, federal agents have stepped up the arrests of immigrants, even those without a criminal record. And a brand new state law further tightens up immigration enforcement. Officer Cisneroz is out here in Magnolia Park with his partner Officer Jesus Robles, who has a unique perspective. Robles came to Texas from Mexico as a child without papers and later got citizenship. He also notices the chill.
JESUS ROBLES: People are afraid to talk to the police. And how does that help us, as police, do our job?
BURNETT: Downtown at police headquarters, their boss, Chief Art Acevedo, has seen the numbers. He says Hispanics reporting sexual assault have dropped nearly 43 percent in the first three months of the year compared to last year. And the number of Hispanic-reported robberies and aggravated assaults are each down 12 percent.
ART ACEVEDO: What we've created is a chilling effect that we are already starting to see the beginning of. They're afraid that we're more interested, as a society, in deporting them than we are in bringing justice to the victims of crime.
BURNETT: Earlier this month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the so-called sanctuary cities bill. It orders local jail officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents and authorizes any Texas peace officer to check the immigration status of any subject they detain. Latino lawmakers are furious. Activists have vowed a summer of resistance of lawsuits and more demonstrations. Abbott defends the new law, saying he can't be racist because his wife is Mexican-American. A reporter for Univision caught up with Abbott at a memorial service for state troopers last week.
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GREG ABBOTT: If you are not someone here who has committed a crime, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. There are laws against racial profiling. And those laws will be strictly enforced.
BURNETT: Houston, like many cities, has a policy discouraging its officers from inquiring about a subject's legal status. Now with the new state law, Chief Acevedo says any officer may ask about a subject's citizenship, but they cannot act like it's open season on immigrants. He says his officers shouldn't think...
ACEVEDO: I'm going to go out to Home Depot and start going after those, you know, day laborers that may be undocumented immigrants. We're going to make sure we provide plenty of training to those that might be inclined to make them understand that racial profiling is not going to be tolerated.
BURNETT: The director of the Houston office of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Patrick Contreras, emailed a statement to NPR. He says foreign nationals who are victims of sex crimes, trafficking or domestic violence may qualify for special visas that allow them to stay in the country. He stresses that ICE's mission is to combat crime and protect the public and to suggest otherwise is reckless and creates fear within communities. Yet, fear of deportation has long complicated relations between Latinos and law enforcement. And lately, it's gotten worse.
Palmira is a 43-year-old house cleaner and babysitter from Guanajuato, Mexico, who lives in Houston with her two teenage daughters. She asked that her last name not be used because she's here illegally.
PALMIRA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Sitting outside of a Starbucks, she describes how there are drug dealers in her apartment complex. They get in fights, and their customers come day and night. But she won't report them.
PALMIRA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I was always afraid to deal with the police because I'm illegal, and I feared they'd take me away" she says. "But now I'm even more scared."
PALMIRA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Houston is not alone. In Los Angeles, Police Chief Charlie Beck says reports of sexual assault this year have dropped 25 percent among the city's Latino population compared to the same period last year. A new survey of hundreds of victims' advocates and legal service providers in 48 states finds that immigrants are afraid to call police, afraid to press charges and afraid to testify at trial because ICE is making arrests at courthouses.
Supporters of stricter immigration enforcement are not convinced, especially with only three months of crime-reporting data under the new president. Liz Theiss is the founder of Stop the Magnet in Houston.
LIZ THEISS: Well, color me skeptical. I don't believe it. And I'd really be curious to see how they got that data considering that supposedly you're dealing with people living in the shadows, living in fear.
BURNETT: But police in Houston say this is not just a blip. With the immigration crackdown continuing, they're concerned going forward with how to balance what can be two very different goals, enforcing federal law and policing the community.
John Burnett, NPR News, Houston.
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