McALLEN, RGV – Slamming legislation that he called “Driving While Mexican,” state Rep. Terry Canales invoked the memory of his great grandfather’s brother and the battle he waged as a state legislator to stop atrocities committed by the Texas Rangers.

Jose Tomas Canales was a member of the Texas House of Representatives 100 years ago. The only Hispanic state lawmaker at the time, he filed legislation to investigate the murder of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by the Texas Rangers.

Jose Tomas Canales

The efforts of J.T. Canales, a co-founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens, led to the reorganization of the Texas Rangers. House Resolution 599, authored by state Rep. René Oliveira of Brownsville, was passed in honor of J.T. Canales in 2005 by the 79th Legislature.

“I have the great distinction of having my great grandfather’s brother serve in the legislature almost 100 years ago. He fought the atrocities of the Texas Rangers. Senator Hinojosa and I have often discussed the bravery of him being the only Hispanic member in the House of Representatives. He was actually recognized in the House as the ‘spik’ from the Rio Grande Valley, the wetback. That is what they would call him,” Canales, D-Edinburg, recounted.

“But, being the only person, you can only imagine the bravery that it took to stand there, and then to actually cause significant change. And here we are, 100 years later, and we are passing the ‘Driving While Mexican’ law.”

Canales made his remarks at an event hosted by the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The group held a “Legislative Report Card Luncheon” to review the 85th Legislative Session. Other speakers included state Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen and state Rep. Bobby Guerra of McAllen.

The legislation Canales called “Driving While Mexican,” is otherwise known as Senate Bill 4. The legislation allows local law enforcement officials to check the residency status of those pulled over while driving. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made the bill a top priority during the legislative session and has since signed it into law. Canales was the last state representative to speak on SB 4 before it was voted on by the Texas House.

“I get the idea that if you are not here legally and you break the law. The problem that we have got now, is that this law demands that you be asked for your papers whether you committed an offense or not. You can be stopped on probable cause. That is the scary part,” Canales said.

“On probable cause, they can demand your papers. So, we can take somebody who has lived here their whole lives, those who have just failed to get their documents. We can take parents from children, we can destroy families.”

Sen. Hinojosa spoke before Rep. Canales at the luncheon. Canales said he was in complete agreement with Hinojosa that if an immigrant has broken the law and committed a crime and there is a detainer request by federal law enforcement, that it should be honored.

“But, that is not what the law does. It is shameful,” Canales said.

Failing Grade

Canales started his speech at the Legislative Report Card Luncheon by saying the Legislature probably deserved an “F” for its performance in the 85th Legislature.

“The Legislature has failed Texas. It has failed to properly fund child protective services. It has failed to properly fund education. It has failed to pass civil asset forfeiture laws, protective property laws, and the list goes on and on and on,” Canales said.

“We have focused more on discriminating against people, putting am onerous burden on our children, leaving our schools bare. We should be focused on reducing testing. We cut education but we don’t cut the funds that we pay the people to test them. So, we will cut education across the board but the people we focus on making sure get paid, are the testing companies.”

Canales said too much of the State of Texas’ focus is on destroying things and not enough is spent on building things up. “We have focused all our efforts on the wrong things instead of the right things. We need to focus on education, infrastructure, criminal justice reform,” Canales said.

Terrified of Mexico

Canales said he passed 12 substantive bills during the recent legislative session. He said he also passed one substantive House Resolution, HR 1173, but not without a fight.

“The one substantive resolution was actually inspired by the Hispanic Chamber. They brought the idea to us and it was more trouble than you would have thought. Basically, what we were trying to do was get the House to pass a resolution saying that NAFTA and free trade is important to Texas. Showing us, exactly what NAFTA does, how it impacts us, the billions of dollars, the hundreds of thousands of jobs it creates and the lives it affects,” Canales said.

“You would have thought that it was something we could easily all agree on. Not in the Texas House. Anything that says Mexico, they are terrified of. We managed to get it passed. Cynthia and those who brought the resolution forward, that resolution is sitting on the President of the United States’ desk from the Texas House of Representatives saying, we want you to acknowledge what NAFTA does for us before you try to rewrite the law that you probably don’t know much about.”

Canales won applause for that dig at President Trump.

Going to Jail for a Traffic Ticket

In his remarks, Canales also focused on one of his top pieces of legislation, House Bill 351. He said it was probably the biggest reform of the criminal justice system during the last two decades. He noted that he has just been interviewed by The Atlantic about it. Canales said Sen. Hinojosa was crucial in helping him pass the bill.

State Rep. Terry Canales speaks at the RGV Hispanic Chamber’s Legislative Report Card Luncheon.

“Last year we jailed over 650,000 people for tickets, which are only punishable by a fine. When you don’t pay the fine you get a warrant and when you get a warrant you go to jail, and then when you go to jail your license is suspended. Then you can’t drive, then you can’t go to your job. It is a vicious cycle of debt that we have created to jail Texans,” Canales said, explaining the background to HB 351.

“We are coming up to the million people mark a year. A million people, jailed for a traffic citation. What the bill does is say a judge has to ask you on the front end and you have to prove to the judge you can’t pay for the ticket. Right now, the judge has no discretion to do that. It is not getting away scot free as everybody says. You have to perform community service, there are a combination of things the judge can do, but we are not going to jail you for it. We are not going to jail you and take you away from your family.”

Canales said he has a friend who was fined $2,000 for having a bottle on South Padre beach. He said he was all for keeping the beach clean, but, “$2,000 will destroy you. Let’s put people in jail that we are scared of – not those we are mad at.”

HB 351 exposed a wider problem, Canales argued. “Our cities and counties have become too reliant on fees and fines to finance government. That’s the bottom line. Once we lock them up, guess who is paying for it? Us. I am extremely proud of House Bill 351. If we kept one person out of jail for a traffic ticket, I am extremely proud.”

Editor’s Note: The above story is the third in a four-part series focusing on the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Report Card Luncheon. Click here to read Part One, featuring state Sen. Juan Hinojosa. Click here to read Part Two, featuring U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez. Part Four, featuring state Rep. Bobby Guerra will be published in our next edition.