Immigration and social justice activists hope the Austin City Council’s unanimous decision to approve a pair of “Freedom City” resolutions Thursday night will encourage other cities across the country to take steps toward addressing racial disparity in arrests and protecting immigrant communities.
More than 100 people rallied in front of City Hall ahead of the vote, then filled the council chambers to tell their stories and urge council members to support the resolutions. Many cited a need for local protection from statewide policies like Senate Bill 4 — Texas’ so-called sanctuary cities ban — recent federal immigration enforcement actions that have targeted immigrant communities in Austin, and discretionary arrests for low-level offenses that often put immigrants in a pipeline to deportation.
Both resolutions were proposed by Council Member Greg Casar, who has called them a “clear-cut case of a simple policy change that the city of Austin can make that would address racial disparities.”
The first resolution calls on City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with the Austin Police Department to end most discretionary arrests, which happen when an officer chooses to arrest someone for an offense that is punishable by either a trip to jail or a ticket.
“The vast majority of people who commit nonviolent misdemeanors — and who are legally eligible to receive a citation — receive a citation and are not arrested,” Casar wrote last week on the council’s online message board. “However, according to APD data, more than 1,000 people in 2017 were arrested for these kinds of citation-eligible offenses via discretionary arrest.”
Casar said the data showed that Austin police arrested African-Americans at an officer’s discretion at more than double the rate of white and Latinos residents.
The resolution also calls on city leaders to track when, where and why discretionary arrests are made.
The second resolution asks that police leaders vet and scrutinize requests for immigration enforcement assistance to see if they include a criminal nexus, and whether officers have the proper training to carry out duties associated with those requests.
It also asks police to ensure that people who are questioned about their immigration status are informed that they have a constitutional right to remain silent, and it further directs the city manager to inform council members of federal requests for city police resources for premeditated immigration enforcement action.
Discretionary arrests are also a major issue for unauthorized immigrants who do not have identification to show police when they are stopped.
United We Dream field organizer Yuridia Loera, who entered the U.S. when she was 2 years old, said Freedom City policies provide a degree of comfort in immigrant communities where many are living in fear every day.
Loera said she hopes the actions in Austin on Thursday night will be a starting point that other cities can emulate to protect immigrant communities and people of color.
Amy and Lana Nelson, Willie Nelson’s daughters, addressed council members on behalf of their family just before 11 p.m.
“We’re proud to stand on the side of love, compassion, tolerance, and decency. We stand in solidarity with our neighbors south of the border and (we wholeheartedly) welcome asylum seekers and the continued presence of our undocumented brothers and sisters,” Amy Nelson said. “We want Austin to be a city where people of all colors can feel safe and welcome.”