State legislators should fight for the ideals of those they represent, realize when they are losing the battle and then work to protect constituents in the aftermath, state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday, Oct. 9 at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Bernal discussed issues such as immigration and campus carry laws.
He shared his mission as a lawmaker, particularly his efforts to oppose last year’s SB 4, which he described as the “show me your papers” bill. The law bans sanctuary cities in Texas and allows law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain.
“My philosophy is to fight for everything that you can get, recognize that you are outnumbered, and when you are outnumbered, know what the reality of the situation is,” he said. “Your job is to minimize damage, because people still have to live the consequences of your actions.”
The political science program hosted the event in Patriots’ Casa, which included free coffee and doughnuts. Despite wet weather, it attracted a crowd of about 50 — mostly political science students and a few professors — who fired questions at the state representative.
The theme of the Q&A seemed to be pragmatism and staying true to the values that got him elected while in a chamber that doesn’t follow the ideals of his constituents.
Bernal talked about the dramatic events that led to passage of SB 4.
According to Bernal, the fight took place on the House floor over whether to allow language that would require law enforcement to question a person’s legal status only after a lawful arrest. That amendment died as it was being discussed, and the attempt to filibuster afterward was also thwarted, leaving the state of Texas with today’s version of the bill.
The version brought up by Bernal and his colleagues would have allowed law enforcement to question legal status only after a suspect has been arrested and Mirandized. It also would have made it impossible to question children.
Bernal spoke of the difference between taking a stand and looking good for YouTube versus taking tough deals that might be less popular but would impact constituents less. He used the story about the fight for SB4 and the fight he had within his own caucus as an example.
“Our community has not been the same since,” he said about the passing of the bill. “In that instance we failed.” He later described how unsafe his constituents feel.
Kayla Salwei, a political science junior, asked about SB 11, the campus-carry bill that allows licensed owners to carry concealed handguns at public universities and colleges in Texas. The law took effect at four-year schools in August 2016.
“It was a bill over symbolism than actual meat,” said Bernal, after noting that the bill still banned guns on the campuses of private universities in the state.
Bernal said such laws cause chaos because first responders do not know how to recognize the bad guy: They see someone with a gun and automatically assume the armed person is the culprit.
Jose Veliz, a student, disagreed, saying those laws can save lives.
“By the time first responders get there, there are already a lot of people dead.”
Commenting on the race between incumbent Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate, Bernal said the effects would be felt down the ballot whether or not O’Rourke wins. Smaller races will be affected by the “blue wave” and “that’s where (Texas) will see change,” he said.
Bernal also discussed poverty and the minimum wage, saying that living wages need to improve but that the issue should be looked at carefully.
“McAllen is not Seattle,” he said, referencing the $15 wage increase Seattle implemented in 2014, which will not be fully implemented until 2021, and might not work for smaller communities like McAllen. Raising the minimum wage would have a positive impact on workers, but it might have a negative effect on small businesses, he said. The current minimum wage in Texas is $7.25.
Bernal also briefly discussed his past and how he got to where he is: “I was a civil rights attorney for about six or seven years, did voting rights, education laws, school finance; I represented farm workers and day labors, joined the city council,” Bernal said.
Bernal said he would always visit the campus when invited by the school or students.
“Community is important, and I will do my best to be accessible,” he told a group of students and professors waiting to talk after the event.
Bernal said lawmakers should make education a priority.
“I like talking about education, because education was one of the civil rights that we kind of left alone after a while,” Bernal said in an interview after the lecture.
Betsy Calderon contributed to this story.