Cities Fight Texas Immigration Law in Federal Court

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Texas cities went to battle Monday against the state in Federal Court over the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4, which prohibits sanctuary cities and punishes local officials with jail time for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officers.

Hundreds of opponents to Texas’ new immigration law rallied outside the courthouse and marched through the Alamo City’s Hemisfair Park and River Walk, as U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia heard hours of arguments from attorneys seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the law from taking effect in September.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in May, would punish local officials who refuse to comply with detainer requests from immigration officers, and allow local law enforcement to question the immigration status of any “lawfully detained” person, including people stopped for minor offenses such as jaywalking or running a stop sign.

Under SB 4, state and local government officials, including college campus police, who refuse to comply with detainer requests would be subject to Class A misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of up to $25,000 a day.

Abbott, who championed the bill as one of his “emergency items” during the recent legislative session, said the intent of SB 4 is to make communities safer by keeping criminal immigrants off the streets.

But throughout the 140-day legislative session, which ended in May, opponents, including several police chiefs and sheriffs, told lawmakers that SB 4 would make communities less safe by making immigrants distrustful of police and reluctant to report crimes.

Opponents vowed to fight SB 4 in a “summer of resistance.” In the 40 days since the bill was signed into law, major cities, including San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin, joined the lawsuit against the state, filed by the small border town of El Cenizo, pop. 3,300, and Maverick County.

Several counties, local officials and social justice groups have also joined the lawsuit.

“A historic number of cities have responded to the people’s call, and said, ‘We hear you, we support you, and we are here in this fight today,’” Austin City Councilman Gregorio Casar told protesters outside the courthouse Monday. “The message we are sending Trump and Abbott and their cronies today is clear: Your hatred is no longer welcome in Texas.”

Casar, who was arrested in May with nearly two dozen others after a sit-in at Abbott’s office, said the case will determine whether the Constitution’s declaration of “We the People” applied to all who call America their home or only to those who wield power in society.

“This is an important moment for ‘we the people,” Casar said. “Brave women and men have protested and marched, fought and died to expand the definition of ‘we the people’, to expand the promise of ‘we the people’ … [that is] what the fight in today’s court hearing is all about.

“Our movements, the ‘we the people’ movements, have faced demagogues in the past, be it King George or George Wallace, Greg Abbott or Donald Trump,” he added. “We know these confrontations like today are key parts of our movement for liberation.”

As protesters rallied outside, attorneys laid out their arguments for Judge Garcia, who played a role in another landmark civil rights case in 2014, when he ruled against Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys told Garcia on Monday that SB 4 is preempted by federal law and violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, while attorneys for the state, supported by the Department of Justice, said the bill was in line with the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Arizona’s “show me your papers” immigration law.

Darren McCarty, an attorney for the state, told Judge Garcia that Texas’ law was “more modest” than Arizona’s, as it does not require local officials to participate in immigration enforcement, but only keeps local officials from restricting officers who may find it necessary to ask whether a person is in the country legally.

“It ensures that there is a complete uniformity in the application of immigration law,” McCarty said. “What Texas wanted to do is to ensure there’s not a patchwork of immigration policies throughout the state.”

But the plaintiffs say the law is unconstitutionally vague, and provides no training, support or guidance to local law enforcement officers.

Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney representing El Cenizo, told the court that because of the way the law is written, officers may assume they need to ask all minorities their immigration status in order to comply with the law.

And because the law punishes public employees, including elected officials, from criticizing the policies supported by SB 4, the plaintiffs said it violates the First Amendment.

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Nina Perales, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the judge the penalties could extend to entities that have no connection with law enforcement, such as San Antonio’s Alamo community colleges, which adopted a resolution in support of young undocumented immigrants.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs described the discriminatory intent of the law, and the damage it could inflict upon the health and safety of communities across the state, in addition to economic damages.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, testified about the racially charged atmosphere in the state House as SB 4 was pushed through that chamber in late May. Hernandez, a former undocumented immigrant, shed tears as she described how colleagues repeatedly used the derogatory term “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.

Many people without documents, such as political asylum applicants, are not “illegal,” as asylum applicants apply for that status inside the United States, as opposed to refugees, who apply outside the borders.

Tom Wong, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego, who testified on the potential social effects of the law, said that recent ICE raids have pushed undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen children into the shadows.

Wong said that ICE raids in the past six months, along with the SB 4 debate, caused a 21 percent drop in participation in WIC, a government nutrition program for pregnant women, new mothers and young children, creating a public health hazard.

Wong said public school absences in Austin increased by 152 percent after ICE actions in Austin in February. He added that U.S. citizen children often perform poorly in school when they fear their immigrant parents might be deported, a fear that would be heightened after implementation of SB 4.

After nearly seven hours of arguments, Judge Garcia said he would review the evidence, but did not say when a ruling could be expected.

A second SB 4 case will be argued on Thursday in Federal Court in Austin. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks will preside over a hearing on “all pending matters” pertaining to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s preemptive lawsuit against the City of Austin and other defendants, asking the court to declare the law constitutional.

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