The Trump administration on Monday signaled its plans to get involved in Texas’ legal battle with Austin and other cities over Senate Bill 4, just as Austin filed paperwork seeking an injunction to block the measure outlawing so-called “sanctuary cities” from taking effect.
The U.S. Department of Justice contacted Austin’s legal department on Monday indicating its intent to file a “statement of interest” and asked to be involved in the court hearings next week on SB 4, according to a city spokesman.
City officials learned of the Trump administration’s interest just as they were preparing to file a motion Monday asking a court to temporarily block the law, which is set to take effect Sept. 1. The city’s filing contains more than a dozen statements, including those from three Austin City Council members, Mayor Steve Adler, interim Police Chief Brian Manley and South by Southwest co-founder Roland Swenson.
The statements are intended to be used as evidence that SB 4 would create hardship and economic harm for the state if the law is implemented.
“Ultimately, my sincere belief — that I have expressed in multiple public statements to my constituents — is that implementation of SB 4 will make Austin less safe,” Adler said in a sworn declaration to the San Antonio federal court that will hold its first hearing June 26 on a legal challenge to SB 4 filed by San Antonio and Austin.
Every member of the City Council has been named as a defendant in a different SB 4 lawsuit that Attorney General Ken Paxton filed hours after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill in May. The first hearing in that suit is scheduled for June 29.
Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Monday that his office had joined nine other states in filing briefs in support of President Donald Trump’s executive order that would cut some Department of Justice grants to cities that prohibit local law enforcement from communicating with immigration agents. Austin and Travis County are in compliance with those laws.
Back in April, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order from taking effect while a court fight over that measure plays out. Austin and Travis County are among dozens of cities and counties challenging that order in court.
Paxton’s brief is a separate matter from the SB 4 lawsuits but reflects the growing number of fronts in the fight over “sanctuary cities,” regarded as local jurisdictions that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement.
SB 4 creates civil and criminal penalties for police and elected officials — including arrest or removal from office — if they block cooperation with federal requests to detain jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. It also allows police to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine police encounters, such as traffic stops.
Abbott and the Legislature made the measure a priority after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced she would honor only some detainer requests at the jail. Hernandez noted some courts have questioned the legality of those detainers and said having deputies enforce immigration law creates a strain with communities of color. Abbott and other state officials have argued that Austin and Travis County are ignoring immigration laws and putting legal residents at risk.
Council Members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria filed statements Monday opposing SB 4. Casar’s filing included seven sworn affidavits from members of his district, nonprofit leaders and a business owner who said they have witnessed or experienced harm since federal immigration agents conducted raids in Austin in February.
A sworn statement from 17-year-old Jassary Rico-Herrera said the immigration raids and the passage of SB 4 has “had a profound effect” on her mental health. Though Rico-Herrera is an American citizen, she lives in a home with people who are not citizens.
She said the her family is planning to get rid of their dogs because they are loud and the family fears that it will lead to police being called to their home, which could result in deportations.
“Unfortunately, we are forced to make this choice because of the anti-immigration environment,” Rico-Herrera’s affidavit said. “I was worried throughout the second half of my senior year of high school because my family was out working and could face deportation.”
Kelly White, the CEO of the nonprofit domestic violence and children’s shelter system SAFE, said her staffers have seen numerous incidents of women unauthorized to be in the country refusing to seek services because of fear of deportation. In her affidavit, White gave more than 15 anecdotes of SAFE clients expressing fear or refusing to report crimes for fear of deportation.
Though one woman said she had been sexually assaulted by her landlord, she refused to report it because of her immigration status, White’s affidavit said. Another woman reported that her lawyer cancelled a hearing to re-up a restraining order against her abuser because of fears that she might be detained at the court and deported, the affidavit said.
In earlier court filings, Austin and other cities challenging SB 4 have argued that Texas improperly created a new immigration law — a power that the Constitution strictly provides only to the federal government.