Texas AG sues over constitutionality of ‘sanctuary cities’ bill

Updated May 09, 2017
Maria Duque fires up a crowd of protesters who gathered outside of the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin on Monday to respond to Gov. Greg Abbott’s signing of Senate Bill 4.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued multiple high-ranking Travis County officials, including Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other staunch opponents of a new law that will punish counties for failing to comply with federal immigration practices.

The lawsuit, which seeks a judge’s opinion on the legality of Senate Bill 4, is perceived as a pre-emptive strike against any litigation the county had planned against the state. In what could end up being a protracted battle in federal court, the state got the first word, accusing Travis and Austin officials of being “publicly hostile to cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.”

The lawsuit came about the same time Gov. Greg Abbott took to Facebook on Sunday evening to livestream his signing of the controversial “sanctuary cities” bill.

A statement released Monday by the attorney general’s office never mentions Travis County or Austin by name, instead attributing a quote to Paxton saying that “some municipalities and law enforcement agencies are unwilling to cooperate with the federal government and claim that SB 4 is unconstitutional.”

The bill will go into effect in September, giving Hernandez approximately four months to alter a policy she began in February reducing cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Under Hernandez, the county has refused to detain defendants for immigration investigations unless they are charged with crimes such as murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

That position under SB 4 will be illegal and grounds for Hernandez to be charged with a crime and for the sheriff’s office to be fined $25,000 a day. According to the lawsuit, Travis County from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 declined 142 ICE detainer requests (69 percent).

The new law was a priority for both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“Texas has finally said ‘enough is enough’ and banned sanctuary cities,” Patrick said in a statement. “Now, no liberal local official can ignore the law and allow criminal aliens who have committed a crime to go free.”

A sheriff’s spokeswoman said Monday that Hernandez had no immediate comment about the law, but will make a statement later this week about how the sheriff’s office will change its procedures.

Adler, another staunch opponent of SB 4, released a statement saying he’s glad the battle is moving to court, “where it’s not about politics, it’s about the law.”

“A judge will decide whether the United States of America or Texas determines federal immigration policy and whether local police and prosecutors have the discretion to keep their communities safe,” he said. “I was elected by the people of Austin, and I will continue to speak on their behalf.”

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who is named in the lawsuit with the rest of the council, said the lawsuit smacks of insecurity by state officials about whether the bill is constitutional. He called it cowardly for Abbott to sign the bill and for Paxton to file the lawsuit Sunday evening to avoid public scrutiny.

“The governor and his cronies clearly are worried about the constitutionality and popularity of their law,” Casar said. “I think it’s fair to say, coming from my conversations with leaders from all over the state, they are very interested in questioning the constitutionality of this.”

Also named in the lawsuit are interim City Manager Elaine Hart and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Meanwhile, area law enforcement agencies are reviewing how to enforce immigration practices under the new standards, which let police inquire during routine stops whether someone is in the U.S. legally. The same goes for campus police. However, Austin school district police officers will not begin making students suspected of crimes provide proof of legal status, according to Chief Eric Mendez.

“It’s not pertinent to the offense that we’re dealing with at the time,” Mendez said.

Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley said in a statement that he is reviewing the language of SB 4 to get a better understanding of how it will affect his department.

“The Austin Police Department has worked hard to build and maintain trust, communication and stronger relationships with our communities through outreach programs and community policing,” Manley said. “This effort and engagement will continue. With the passage of this law, we want our minority community to maintain their trust in us. If you see or are a victim of a criminal act we want you to call us and report it.”

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong month for the implementation of Travis County’s new policy reducing cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. That change took place in February.