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- Activists, faith leaders and an Austin city councilman staged a sit-in in at Gov. Abbott's office earlier this month to protest the passing of Senate Bill 4
Texas' largest cities have been uniform in their opposition to a new state law they fear will extend the reach of federal immigration enforcement to local police departments.
That was underscored on Tuesday when city council members in the state's five big cities gathered in front of the capitol to call for a "summer of resistance" against Senate Bill 4, the law Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week behind closed doors. Leaders from Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and El Paso warned of an oncoming tidal wave of litigation to challenge the law, which they fear will lead to racial profiling and drive immigrant communities into the shadows.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, whose city has been the main target of Gov. Abbott's crackdown on so-called "sanctuary cities," says he's eager to bring the fight to the courts. "We're anxious to get out of the political arena and into the courtroom," he told reporters Tuesday. "Our driving goal is to keep our communities safe, and we know from our public safety professionals and our police chiefs that Senate Bill 4 makes us less safe."
That bill, now set to go into effect September 1, essentially bars police departments in cities like San Antonio from enforcing policies that tell cops not to ask about immigration status in routine law enforcement encounters. The bill would force police departments and sheriff's offices to obey routine requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally (requests that immigration attorneys and even one federal court judge say are often flawed, fall below the legal standard of a warrant, and are most likely unconstitutional). Police officials who don't cooperate with the feds risk a Class A misdemeanor charge and steep fines under the law, which even applies to college and university campus police departments.
Police chiefs across the state have told lawmakers they fear the measure will make immigrants less likely to report crimes and render their cities less safe. To highlight the concern, they point to Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, where the police chief says that already the number of Hispanics reporting rape is down 43 percent from last year, as is the number of Hispanics reporting other violent crimes (a 13 percent dip during that same timeframe).
The day after Abbott signed the bill, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus publicly excoriated Texas lawmakers for failing to listen to the state's top law enforcement officials. "There's nothing positive that this bill does in the community or in law enforcement," he said. "Austin didn't seem to want to listen to its law enforcement leaders across the state. And that, to me, is troubling."
Amid the intense opposition from Texas' biggest cities, state Attorney General Ken Paxton last week took the unusual step of filing a pre-emptive lawsuit against Austin officials and civil rights organization MALDEF for being "publicly hostile to cooperating with federal immigration enforcement," all in hopes of getting a court to declare the law constitutional and fend off any legal attack. (MALDEF general counsel Thomas Saenz in turn encouraged Abbott and Paxton to "seek treatment for an apparent problem with premature litigation.") Since then, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Maverick County and the city of El Cenizo, a tiny border town that is likely the state's oldest "sanctuary city," have sued in hopes of blocking the law and declaring it unconstitutional.
Karla Perez, a master's student at the University of Houston who is undocumented, says that she and other organizers with United We Dream plan to work with likeminded officials and nonprofits to drum up the kind of opposition to SB 4 that could lead to more public action over the law this summer. Already, there have been marches and sit-ins urging the governor to scrap the bill.
"I have lived in Houston for most of my life," Perez told reporters Tuesday. "This is my home. I am here to defend it and I'm here to stay...It is time to take action in the streets, in the courts, and on the airwaves."
There could very well be more SB 4-related lawsuits on the horizon. San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña, who represents the city's south side and has been one of the loudest voice out of city hall decrying SB 4, told the Current that city leaders are still discussing what their options might be for challenging the law in court. On Tuesday, he delivered this promise to fellow city leaders from Austin, Houston, Dallas and El Paso: “San Antonio stands shoulder to shoulder with you in vigorous opposition to SB 4 and we will be doing so in the courts.”
The issue is a personal for Saldaña, whose father was undocumented for most of his childhood. "He's told me about the immigration raids at work, what it was like to have to hide or run, to worry about whether you'd come home to see your kids," Saldaña told us. "I can't imagine what my life would have been like, whether I would have even graduated from high school, if things had turned out differently, if one day he suddenly wasn't around."
Last week, Saldaña helped secure some $150,000 in city emergency funds for local nonprofits that say they're drowning in requests for legal help from immigrant families as the Trump Administration and Texas Legislature pass policies expected to push their communities into the shadows.
Saldaña says he keeps hearing from immigrant and mixed-status families in his district that are preparing for the worst. "I had a conversation with someone the other day who said, 'If they're going to deport me, I just need to make sure who my son's guardian will be when that happens,'" Saldaña recalled. "That's the kind of fear these laws are creating."