- Philip Jankowski American-Statesman Staff
In what several experts characterized as a move to take the reins of legal challenges against the “sanctuary cities” ban under Senate Bill 4, the Austin City Council voted late Thursday to sue the state of Texas.
Austin now joins the city and county of El Paso as Texas urban areas set to sue the state over the controversial immigration law. The small border city of El Cenizo and Maverick County have already sued the state. Dallas and San Antonio could authorize legal action against the state next week.
Austin was already headed to court over the law after state Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city and each individual council member in a lawsuit asking for a judge to declare the law constitutional. Austin and Travis County have been targeted by state lawmakers since Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez put in place a policy declining to honor many jail detention requests from federal immigration authorities.
But immigration law experts said a suit from Austin would allow the city to better highlight issues that the city’s legal team might see as having the highest potential to overturn part or all of the law. It also allows the city to tailor a suit to parts of the law that apply most directly to Austin.
“It would allow them to have some ability to frame the legal issue in a way that is clearer in terms of the reasons why the city of Austin would be harmed by implementation of SB 4,” said Denise Gilman, a law professor and the director the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas.
UT professor and attorney Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said preparing a suit would allow Austin to have a head start in case Paxton’s lawsuit is dismissed.
Faye M. Kolly, a local immigration attorney, said it appears as though Austin is preparing to partner with other cities in the legal fight. During Thursday’s meeting, Council Member Greg Casar called Austin a part of a “broad coalition” challenging SB 4.
That would increase the pool of resources and allow for a greater range of courts to be used for filings.
Challenges over the law’s constitutionality could take many forms. Some might challenge the provision requiring cities to enforce warrantless federal detention requests placed on people suspected of illegal immigration. Others could challenge the vagueness of what the law states are sanctuary policies. SB 4 could also be seen as discriminatory because it might lead to racial profiling of Hispanics.
“It also sounds like they are looking for some class action or joint action,” Kolly said. “They believe they have a better shot if they want to join a wider class. They could cast a wider net, as far as for discovery.”
Thursday’s vote came after an emotional plea from Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, who said that he has seen growing fear among the immigrants in his district, which is made up of parts of East, Southeast and South Austin.
“It’s a sad time here in the state,” Renteria said. “I’m very disappointed because of all of this hard work I have done in my life to fight for equality just seems like it is slowly disappearing and the hate’s coming back.”
The resolution passed 10-1 with the council’s lone conservative, Ellen Troxclair, voting against.
“I have a specific responsibility to speak up on behalf of the people that hold a different and equally important view of the city of Austin being both welcoming and lawful,” Troxclair said. “In the midst of our affordability crisis, this is going to cost the city an unspecified amount of money to do something that I’ve had federal immigration officials tell me is making our city less safe.”