Austin, other cities spar with state, DOJ in ‘sanctuary cities’ hearing

June 26, 2017
José Landeros of Edinburg protests against Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary cities ban, outside of the federal courthouse in San Antonio on Monday. People gathered from across the state to protest the law. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Lawyers from numerous Texas cities sparred with the state and the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday in the first hearing in their attempts to upend Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary cities ban, before it can be implemented.

The hearing, held in a federal courtroom in San Antonio, brought forward many previously filed arguments, claiming that SB 4 is unconstitutional, violating the First and Fourth amendments, and that immigration should be a matter of federal, not state, law. It was the first time the fight over SB 4 had played out in court.

SB 4 “is a hand in the glove of immigration enforcement,” said Darren L. McCarty, a lawyer with Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, arguing in favor of the law.

After hearing opening statements from the law’s challengers — which include Austin, Travis County, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas — McCarty sought to counter many of its critics, who refer to SB 4 as a “show me your papers” law for empowering law enforcement officers to ask about a person’s immigration status during routine encounters such as traffic stops.

Several times during the hearing, Paxton’s attorneys argued that allowing officers to do so would not lead to racially profiling Latinos.

The full-day hearing came after a flurry of filings late last week and the addition of new plaintiffs seeking to stop the law from going into effect on Sept. 1. Many observers of the legal battle said the large number of plaintiffs was reminiscent of the ongoing redistricting battle that is set to resume in federal court this summer.

SB 4 creates criminal and civil penalties for elected officials who enact policies that limit local authorities from complying with detention requests placed on local jail inmates suspected of illegal immigration. But it also requires that elected officials not “endorse” so-called sanctuary policies, which the law’s opponents believe is a vague provision that violates the First Amendment.

In testimony that elicited chuckles from the packed courtroom, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff immediately pointed to the stiff penalties that call for the removal from office of anyone who endorses policies antithetical to SB 4. At the outset of his cross-examination, state’s attorney Bill Deane asked the longtime politician if he should be referred to as judge.

“You may have to address me as a former elected official in not too long,” Wolff told the court.

Wolff was one of several elected officials who testified against the bill on Monday. Also heard were San Antonio City Council Member Rey Saldana and state Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, who shed a few tears recounting her story of growing up while living in the country illegally and the emotionally charged legislative session earlier this year that brought progressives and conservatives into conflict over SB 4.

The state and the Justice Department did not call any witnesses.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia did not offer a timeline on when he will rule in the case. Garcia said that a redistricting case scheduled next month in his court could take priority over making a ruling in the SB 4 case.

A hearing in a separate case regarding SB 4 will take place at the Austin federal courthouse on Thursday. That hearing is not expected to receive as much fanfare as Monday’s hearing, which would-be spectators lined up outside the courthouse to see and which drew an hours-long protest and march.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said after the hearing that he felt the Justice Department tried to hide the true intent of SB 4 while lawyers for the attorney general’s office attempted to downplay its significance.

“It was so powerful to see the cities of Texas standing up and unified against the Trump administration,” Casar said.