Democratic lawmaker says legislature allowed immigration policy to get “hijacked” by divisive rhetoric during this year’s Nevada legislative session.
Assemblyman Edgar Flores, Chair of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus, said in many ways the legislative session was marred by divisive rhetoric on immigration that halted progress on immigration policy in the Legislature.
Flores and other members of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus spoke about legislative victories, shortcomings, and the impact of new laws during an immigration policy forum last week.
Flores’s bill, AB281, which sought to ensure that police officers in the field could not detain someone solely on the basis of a possible immigration violation in order to build community confidence among immigrants, died in the Assembly Judiciary committee without getting a vote.
“We do not do field immigration enforcement,” said Metro spokesperson Chuck Callaway during the hearing. “That’s the job of the federal government. We are not asking (about immigration status), not checking people’s papers.”
While law enforcement characterized the bill as mostly innocuous and “business as usual,” during over an hour of testimony opponents of the bill argued the legislation would tie law enforcement’s hands and constituted a step toward making Nevada a “sanctuary state.” Many in opposition evoked the murder of four people last year in Gardnerville by an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, a case that received national attention after President Trump tweeted about it as justification for his proposed wall along the southern border.
“WHAT ABOUT MS13; ARE WE GOING TO LET THEM FREE?” wrote one constituent in submitted testimony.
Flores said the runaway rhetoric halted the bill’s progress.
“What happens is there are trigger words, and those trigger words will instantly divide our community,” Flores said during the panel.
“It turned into a whole host of other things that had nothing to do with the bill,” Flores said. “But what happened is the moment someone started saying something else, instead of inviting them to the table, we allowed the dialogue to be hijacked and nothing productive comes from that.”
“When that happens, we go from this roundtable to becoming islands. When that happens we already lost.”
During the legislative session, former Attorney General and failed gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt generated opposition to Flores’s the bill, sending targeted donor solicitation emails through Laxalt’s PAC, Morning in Nevada.
The PAC created a website, “Not in Nevada,” which called the bill “radical left-wing policy” that would “make Nevada a Sanctuary State” and falsely claimed the bill would “prevent our local law enforcement from working with ICE to keep our communities safe” and prevent “criminal illegal immigrants” from being reported to federal authorities.
“I do think the Legislature allowed fear to lead them,” said Laura Martin, the executive director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada who helped organize the event.
“Immigration once was a conversation about families and it’s become very racist and nationalist. But to be a true ‘immigration champion’ you have to be fearless in making sure our state’s laws— like traffic tickets —aren’t feeding immigrants to Trump’s deportation machine. In case people forgot, Adam Laxalt lost. It’s almost like people thought he could still veto their bills.”
Not all immigration policy ended in defeat despite divisive rhetoric. Freshman Assemblywoman and member of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus Selena Torres passed a bill allowing non-U.S. citizens— including undocumented immigrants— to apply for professional occupational licenses.
With almost unanimous support, the bill passed the state Senate after only two Republicans— Ira Hansen and James Settlemeyer—voted against it. The Assembly vote was more along party lines, passing 29-11 with only one Republican, Jill Tolles, joining all the Democrats to support it.
Still, before the bill made it past the Senate, Torres added an amendment clarifying that none of the bill’s provisions violate federal law.
“Once we added that in I think it really gave conservatives a little more understanding of the legislation and its implications,” Torres said. “It was just a matter of reiterating that this piece of legislation completely coincides with the federal statutes that already exist. Once we did that it gave us the clarification necessary to rally bipartisan support.”
During the forum, Torres thanked members of the Latino community who took the time to take long bus trips up to Carson City, adding that their support gave her strength during “emotionally draining” hearings.
“Obviously with some of the hearings—specifically with some of the ones dealing with immigration—we had some very heated moments. Without a doubt.”
“It might have been difficult, emotionally draining at times. There was one day, in particular, I remember coming home and thinking I couldn’t wait to get out of Carson City. I remember it took me something like two days to recover.”
As a school teacher, Torres said she often sees that the needs of her students and their families are not met, noting that they were the reason she ran for her district.
Torres is the daughter of an immigrant and represents a district made of immigrants, adding that she is dedicated to fighting so “that those immigrant voices are heard.”
“When you’re up there and you know you’re doing all of this for a reason—because you care about your community and you know what you can accomplish— it becomes worth it,” Torres said.
“I know it’s exhausting to constantly fight for what you need in your community because we shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to fight we should just have it.”
“Our fight is hard— but the fight of our community members is harder.”
Attorney General Aaron Ford joined the panel of legislators to criticize Trump and his administration for its treatment of immigrants, saying “immigrants have been under attack by this administration before he even ran.”
“This election was existential,” Ford said of the 2016 presidential race. “Everybody was under attack. Immigrants have been under attack by this administration before he even ran by calling Mexicans ‘rapists.’ What he’s doing right now in this administration is continually looking for ways to undermine the immigrant community.”
Ford discussed a proposed rule by the Trump administration that could displace more than 100,000 people in immigrant families — including at least 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or otherwise eligible — from government-subsidized housing. The proposal would result in the eviction not only of the undocumented immigrants but also family members in the household who are in the U.S. legally.
The attorney general offered his office’s services to every community regardless of immigration status.
“We want to let you all know yet again that our office is open to help out every community even those who can’t vote for us.”
“We are here to help you,” Ford said.
Last week’s panel was held at the East Las Vegas Community Center and hosted by Mi Familia Vota, the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus, PLAN Action Fund, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, Battle Born Progress, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada & the Nevada Immigrant Coalition.