Other cities may join Austin in fighting ‘sanctuary cities’ ban

May 16, 2017
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, right, joined local and state leaders like Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia, left, and grassroots organizations from across Texas on Tuesday announcing their support for legal challenges to Senate Bill 4. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Many of the Democratic centers in Texas appear to be headed toward a collaborative legal fight against the recently signed Senate Bill 4 banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” as some of Texas’ largest cities and counties start taking action to sue the state.

On Tuesday, local elected officials from Austin, Dallas, Houston, El Paso County and San Antonio all pledged to fight SB 4 by possibly assisting Austin in defending itself in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton or suing the state outright in what Austin City Council Member Greg Casar characterized as a “joint” effort.

Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston said that the Dallas City Council could vote as early as next week to take legal action against SB 4 and possibly come to the aid of Austin.

“We have lots of legal resources,” Kingston said. “The fight is now in the court and it is time to stand together.”

Should a coalition of cities emerge to challenge the constitutionality of SB 4, it would make for a rare instance of a group of cities challenging the state, pitting the left leaning urban centers again the state’s Republican majority.

Already the border city El Cenizo and Maverick County have filed suit challenging SB 4. And on Monday, El Paso County commissioners voted to pursue legal action against the state. The League of United Latin American Citizens has also sued over the bill.

School districts have previously banded together to challenge the state’s school finance system, winning some victories.

The elected officials and an attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was also named as a defendant in Paxton’s lawsuit, said they would not talk legal strategies. But MALDEF Regional Counsel Marisa Bono had no qualms about mocking the bill.

“Frankly this bill is like a bad law school exam where students have to find the most constitutional violations possible,” Bono said. “Truly the bill is that bad.”

Earlier this month Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law with little advance notice, broadcasting its signing live on Facebook. Some criticized the move as a way to avoid protests that would likely have resulted had immigrant advocacy groups known Abbott’s plan ahead of time.

Its signing came after a contentious fight in the Texas House, where Democrats’ attempts to stall or water down the bill backfired and led to a more strict bill enabling local law enforcement to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine police encounters such as traffic stops. Some on the left have dubbed the law the “show me your papers” law, a description Abbott rejected Tuesday.

Before that, Austin and Travis County had become the epicenter of the fight between conservatives and progressives over immigration issues after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez put in place a policy that ignored many requests from federal immigration officials to hold jail inmates for possible deportation.

In response, Abbott vowed to “hammer” Travis County and yanked $1.5 million in public safety grants that went toward diversion programs such as drug court, veterans court and the Phoenix Court. Abbott also said he would work to chuck Hernandez from office.

Hernandez has said she would follow the letter of the law, implying that when SB 4 takes effect on Sept. 1, she would undo her signature immigration policy at the jail. At the rally, Casar said that allies of SB 4 would have local leaders stand down in their fight against the bill.

“They want their local elected officials like those standing behind me to cave in and betray their communities at the end of the summer,” Casar said. “But we are sending a strong message today alongside community organizations which is, instead of caving in, the governor is going to get a summer of resistance.”

The Austin City Council is set on Thursday to direct the city’s legal team to prepare litigation against the state. If attendance of the rally is any indication of support, Casar’s resolution to sue the state should pass easily. It appeared that only three members of the 11-person City Council were not at the rally, which led to the city publicly posting the rally as a city meeting because a quorum was present.

The council took no action.

“Our state has enacted a racist and hate-filled law that will tear families apart and make our community less safe,” Council Member Delia Garza said. “This is unacceptable and I am thankful for so many standing here today to fight for our community.”