By OpalDivine (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 12, 2017; Austin American-Statesman

Texas passed a law last week banning sanctuary cities. The national controversy over “sanctuary cities” has done more than occupy headlines and put fear in the hearts of millions of undocumented residents across America; it has begun to have a significant impact on the thousands of nonprofit social service agencies that serve them.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that with the signing of Texas’ new sanctuary cities ban into law last week, local nonprofits fear for the safety of their clients and the future of their organizations. The new law will punish counties that fail to comply with federal immigration requests to detain jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. El Buen Samaritano, a faith-based medical and wellness nonprofit that serves about 10,000 people—of which about 90 percent are Latin@—saw an initial 50 percent drop in clinic visits after the February ICE raids, with the decline continuing. Even though El Buen Samaritano doesn’t require clients to disclose residency status to receive services, “It’s difficult to assure them that it’s safe to come,” said the agency’s executive director.

After the Austin-area Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids this year, some local nonprofit groups serving primarily Latin@ clients noticed a sharp drop in the number of people showing up for services, which still hasn’t bounced back. Some volunteers found themselves making grocery runs for undocumented immigrant families afraid to leave their homes.

Many other Austin-area nonprofit leaders told the American-Statesman that they have also seen a drop in people seeking services, so they are focusing on educating their clients and staff about the new law and their rights. At the Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace’s monthly “Know your Rights – Immigration” training program, attendance has tripled since the beginning of the year.

That organization saw an 80 percent increase over last year in sexual assault victims who were unwilling to report their assaults to law enforcement. The paper says that other cities across the country also have reported a climate of fear affecting crime reporting and deterring people from social services.

Austin’s police department is reviewing the possible impact of the new law and will make “any necessary changes to policy or procedures once this review has been completed.” The police chief said in a statement to the American-Statesman that he is intent on maintaining the trust of the undocumented community.

Nonprofits across America depend on federal, state, and local funding to operate—and there is widespread concern about the new political climate and what it could mean in the future.

“We’re very worried about our funding,” said one nonprofit leader. “We have a lot of governmental grants.” That nonprofit has noticed a drop in community donations compared to last year and called the current situation “the perfect storm.” On the other hand, many immigrant rights advocacy organizations are seeing a big increase in donations from enraged supporters.

Texas’ sanctuary cities law goes into effect September 1st, but nonprofits in the Lone Star state are already looking at potential long-term effects on their clients and entire communities. El Buen Samaritano points out that “if people are fearful to reach out for services, they will wait until they are so sick that they end up in emergency rooms, and then the burden and cost becomes exponential.”

In Texas, a coalition of health and human services organizations has been coordinating a discussion of the challenges now facing nonprofits.

California has taken a completely opposite approach to the sanctuary city issue. Lawmakers in the Golden State last month passed a bill that blocks state and local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. It is unofficially known as the “sanctuary state” bill, and blocks state and local law enforcement agencies from using their resources to help with federal immigration enforcement. And in Colorado, Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature have killed a pair of Republican-sponsored bills to withhold state funds from sanctuary cities.—Larry Kaplan