It is kind of funny –– funny ironic, not funny ha-ha –– that the 11 people who are empowered to advise city staff and elected officials on racial matters in Fort Worth were silent leading up to City Council’s decision to resist joining a lawsuit against SB 4.
The senate bill, which became law on Sept. 1, directs local officials to participate in federal immigration detainment or risk being fined or jailed. The law also prevents city officials from adopting policies to limit immigration enforcement.
Fort Worth’s Human Relations Commission was created 50 years ago to advise and consult with city staff and elected officials on discrimination matters involving race, religion, or ethnicity. The group’s members are appointed by the City Council to serve at-large terms.
The lack of a quorum in July meant the Commission didn’t meet that month.
In August, Fort Worth City Council voted 5-4 to refrain from joining the lawsuit against the “sanctuary cities” bill. The city’s elected officials chose to sit out a modern-day civil rights movement being endorsed by Texas’ other largest cities, including Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
Critics say the law is discriminatory.
On Sept. 18, Fort Worth’s Human Relations Commission called a special meeting, discussed the situation, and wrote a letter recommending that the City Council reconsider its decision to sit out the protest.
“Implementation of SB 4 disproportionately impacts Hispanic/Latino residents and targets them for extra scrutiny simply because of how they look or how they speak,” the recommendation stated. “Compliance with SB 4 — as written — by local law enforcement can place a burden on our police department, erode public trust, and makes communities less safe.”
City Council didn’t respond to the recommendation, and so Commission members are moving to Plan B, chairperson Eva Bonilla said. Members plan to meet with city attorneys on Nov. 6 to discuss possible methods to encourage city leaders to resist SB 4.
“We put it on our agenda because we want some action,” she said.
City Council’s decision to stay on the sidelines was “disconcerting” to the Commission, Bonilla said, which “firmly believes that SB 4 disproportionately impacts Latino and Hispanic residents for increased scrutiny because of the color of their skin, their accents, and/or their national origin.”
A few members groused and briefly discussed resigning after the City Council voted to stay out of the lawsuit before dismissing those thoughts, she said.
“What happens if we resign?” Bonilla said. “Nobody is going to be speaking up against [City Council]. They charged us to have this role and this task, and the city leaders aren’t listening to us. So we are pushing back. If we give up, there is no other commission that can push back on them. Not all laws are good laws, and we as individuals have to push back against that.”
Councilmembers never seemed enthusiastic about SB 4, expressing concerns that the law could put local officials in the uncomfortable position of being de facto federal immigration officers. And yet most of the elected officials didn’t favor bucking state law or getting involved in a legal matter.
In a packed and heated meeting in August, a slim majority voted to follow state law while also assuring residents that local police will remain compassionate. Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald told Council that the law will be tough to uphold but that police will be trained on the new guidelines. Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn supported SB 4 but said racial profiling will not be tolerated. Dissenting Council members said SB 4 isn’t good for families or the local business environment.
A local group that tried to convince City Council members to join the lawsuit against SB 4 is now accusing them of ignoring constituents. A grassroots group of Fort Worth area residents opposed to discriminatory policies and legislation, United Fort Worth requested open records –– emails and phone records –– from the councilmembers who voted against joining the lawsuit. The records showed that residents who supported joining the lawsuit outnumbered those who opposed it by an almost 4-to-1 ratio, United Fort Worth member Mindia Whittier said in an email to the Weekly.
Some United Fort Worth members protested with signs last week when Mayor Betsy Price and other city officials hosted a public event to celebrate the Human Relations Commission’s 50th anniversary.
United Fort Worth founder Daniel Garcia Rodriguez penned a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointing out that the 50th anniversary party was held on Friday, Oct. 20 –– the deadline for cities to file an amicus brief in the SB 4 lawsuit, allowing city leaders to weigh in on the lawsuit without becoming litigants.
Rodriguez characterized the coincidence as “symbolic” in his column: “It embodies the pattern of recent decisions, actions, and policy changes by Price and select members of City Council to alienate, disregard and undermine communities of color.” He considered the anniversary celebration a “photo opportunity” rather than a commitment to civil rights, and he wrote that Price and her council cohorts had rendered the Human Relations Commission “impotent” in the modern civil rights movement by ignoring its recommendation.
Bonilla said the Commission has worked behind the scenes for decades advising city staff on inclusiveness. In recent years, the group has been involved in improving communication between police and residents, establishing LGBT protections, and performing educational outreach to the community.
Plans for the 50th anniversary celebration were made prior to SB 4, said Bonilla, who described Garcia’s column as “hurtful” to previous and current commissioners and city staff.
“I hope one of these days we will no longer need the Commission,” Bonilla said. “Until then we must work together to overcome racism and discrimination and advocate for human and civil rights.”