About a month ago, I was part of a group of people assaulted by a guy who used the National Anthem as a weapon.
About a hundred of us were standing in line, waiting to offer our testimony before the Texas House of Representatives’ State Affairs’ Committee. We were part of more than a thousand people gathered that day, determined to testify on the multiple ways that Senate Bill 4, the Texas “anti-sanctuary cities” bill, was a curse, a pox and a bad law. The law would authorize, indeed, would require local police officers to act as immigration agents.
We were chatting easily in the hallway, enjoying the remarkable hospitality of fellow travelers, when an older fellow, an American flag bandana tied around his forehead, swaggered up the hall. His name tag identified him as a member of the Fredericksburg Tea Party. The man stopped about fifteen away, scowled at the group for a long moment and then launched into the Star-Spangled Banner.
To give him credit, he was brave to attack us with such a clumsy weapon. This is a tune with some impossible high notes – and it goes on forever and ever. It seems to me that it would be just plain hard to express passionate anger for that long a time, but this guy apparently had a lot of bile to fuel his effort.
His intent, however, was interrupted by some of the younger members of our group. They turned toward him and began singing songs. The songs were followed by chants, which filled the long hallways of the Capitol and attracted news media and others to the scene.
The Tea Party fellow finally finished – not that I could hear him. He gave a fist pump directed to whomever sits on high, looking down on all of this. He then wandered back down the hall, the American flag, looking a little worn, still sitting on his head.
In the meantime, the testimonies against the bill continued. I was delighted with the energy and patience that my state representative, Rene Oliveira from Brownsville, demonstrated as a member of the committee.
Over and again he followed up on objections to the law, drawing out the salient points about just how this was bad public policy. Someone spoke about her fear that the community would not call local police as a witness – or a victim – of crime, and how that would ruin good police work.
One of the committee members responded, “Well, if they are here legally, they shouldn’t be afraid.” To which Oliveira responded, “Yes, well there are over a hundred different kinds of visas that allow a lawful presence. Which patrol cop is going to have the time to learn all of that?”
Terry Canales, a state representative from Edinburg, while not a member of this committee, had also been loud and clear in opposition to this particular bit of legislation. His passion with regard to this attack on our communities appealed to many of those who had come up from the Rio Grande Valley to testify.
One of those liking Canales’ words was a Brownsville neighbor, who confided: “I don’t really like this public speaking stuff. This is not my thing. But I just can’t be quiet on this one. It is so wrong. We are not criminals, we are not even criminal suspects…but that is how they will treat us. So I gotta speak my truth.”
Over the past two months there had been loads of speaking truth to power. In the end, however, despite the powerful testimony from other representatives, police chiefs, sheriffs, bishops, physicians, teachers and citizens, the Texas state House passed the bill.
Not only did the House pass the Senate version of the bill, but they went to the trouble, in my opinion, to make it a nastier piece of work, insisting on an amendment that would allow a police officer to ask a child about his or her citizenship.
I believe that speaking truth to power is a moral imperative, but that it also does shape history, in its own way. But the damage done in the meantime by those in power is considerable.
Part of this truth that must be spoken must be directed to the nation, to our state and to the larger community so fellow citizens know full and well what is taking place in their names, in our names, in the names of all of us.
This is said in the hope they would understand that those who suffer from these decisions have names, too, and have friends and neighbors and allies.
It is clear that the Anti-Sanctuary Cities’ legislation was purely an effort by a majority of the representatives to manipulate their constituents’ fears. There are no sanctuary cities in Texas.
The few efforts to push back against cooperation with federal immigration officials was in the name of good police work and had little to do, unfortunately, in my opinion, with a heroic defense of the integrity of those communities which are home to immigrant families.
There are people in the U.S. who bow to the Word of the Lord at the drop of a hat – or at least to those words that happen to suit them and their cause of the moment. If truth be told, and it must be so, especially these days, the Word of the Lord has a lot to say about sanctuary.
And while there are long arguments back and forth about just what the Bible means when it speaks about our moral obligations to strangers, it is clear to me that the author of sacred scripture could not countenance the criminalization of entire peoples for the purposes of advancing political careers.
To the contrary, there are bushels of blessings and promises of prosperity for those governments that love the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the sick – and the stranger.
Michael Seifert is a community activist in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. A version of this essay first appeared in his blog, “Views from Alongside a Border.” About the top image: Students gather on April 26 at the Texas state Capitol in Austin to oppose SB 4, an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that already cleared the Texas state Senate and seeks to jail sheriffs and other officials who refuse to help enforce federal immigration law. AP Photo by Eric Gay