Texas' "Sanctuary Cities" Crackdown Goes to Court on Monday

By now, at least four counties, five cities, and a handful of city officials in  Texas have signed on to a lawsuit against the state’s new immigration law, a measure that will extend the reach of federal immigration enforcement into local police departments.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 in May, the number of plaintiffs in the case have snowballed to represent some of Texas’ largest municipalities, including Austin, El Paso, Dallas — and both the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. Just last week, Houston City Council voted to join the suit. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s reasoning: “I have found that there are some things that may not be of your choosing but end up on your plate. And when it ends up on your plate, you have to address it.”

This week, that growing list of plaintiffs will see their first day in court.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia will hear arguments Monday morning at San Antonio’s Federal Courthouse on why SB 4 should be put on hold until the case is decided, instead of going into effect on its expected Sept. 1 start date. The 9:30 a.m. preliminary injunction hearing will be the first opportunity for attorneys to challenge the constitutionality of the pending law in court.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs in the case. MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz said he hopes Judge Garcia will seriously consider the “potential harms and the significant constitutional questions” about SB 4’s legality during the hearing.

“Because SB 4 would inflict grievous and irreparable harm on individuals and public officials, it should be barred from implementation until the law's legality is determined,” Saenz said.

SB 4 — which has been called both the “sanctuary city bill” and “show me your papers bill” — would allow local law enforcement to question the immigration status of anyone they legally detain or arrest, regardless of what crime they committed. It would also force local police to detain any noncitizen the feds ask them to until an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent shows up. If they don't comply, police officials could face a Class A misdemeanor charge under the new law.

Law enforcement officials across the state, including San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus, have warned state lawmakers that the law will undoubtedly push community members into the shadows, fearful of any encounter with the police on the off chance an officer will ask for their immigration papers — even if they're just trying to report a crime. Numbers from Houston Police Department showing a drastic drop in reported crimes from Latino residents have already validated that fear.

San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña, the son of an undocumented immigrant father and the local official who ignited the movement to get San Antonio to join the lawsuit, will be one of the many plaintiffs testifying Monday morning. But he’s not planning to lean on his personal story to get points in court.

“On Monday, I will be a city councilman taking a stand for the community I represent and the constitutionality of this law,” he told the Current. “It’s tough to find middle ground when a debate becomes emotional. I plan on presenting a technical, legal argument as to why this decision is flawed.”

Outside the courtroom, however, Saldaña said he’ll lose the legalese. It’s important for him to humanize what seems to be an intentionally confusing debate.

“Regardless of what side of the issue you stand on, we live in a city diverse in documented and documented immigrants. People forget that our economic success is because of immigrants, not in spite of them,” he said. “But ‘the other’ is always the easiest to blame in moments like these.”

Not surprisingly, the Trump Justice Department thinks Texas’ new law is just fine. On Friday, the feds filed what’s called a statement of interest in the lawsuit, arguing SB 4 is constitutional and is not preempted by federal law. In their filing, DOJ attorneys say the kind of local policies banned by Texas’ sanctuary cities bill, like SAPD’s directive not to ask about immigration status in routine law enforcement encounters, “disrupt proper enforcement of federal immigration law.” The DOJ filing calls ICE detainers “an important tool to promote public safety.”

In a Thursday press call with reporters, MALDEF’s Saenz said that while this statement does come straight from the President, it holds no more power over Judge Garcia's’ decision than the plaintiff’s arguments.

“It’s disappointing, he said, “but that disappointment does not make the likelihood of getting a preliminary injunction any less.”

The jumble of attorneys from MALDEF, the ACLU and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) representing the long list of plaintiffs argue SB 4 violates violates a handful of constitutional amendments by punishing officials for speaking out against the law, allowing cops to make warrantless arrests without probable cause, and subjecting Latinos to discriminatory police stops.

“Not only will SB 4 lead to wholesale racial profiling, it is so vaguely written that local officials and law enforcement agencies are essentially left to guess whether their policies and practices would violate the law,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, in a press release.

But the attorneys believe the odds may be in their favor because of Judge Garcia’s recent track record. Earlier in the month, Garcia ruled against mandatory ICE detainers in an unrelated federal case where jailers detained an undocumented immigrant for more than two months after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed. Garcia said this decision to hold the innocent man violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure. Attorneys say they’re unsure how quickly Judge Garcia will make a decision on the injunction request.

After his morning testimony, Saldaña will join the planned rally against SB 4 outside the federal courthouse to share his experience and support the crowd — joining former city councilman Rep. Diego Bernal. It’s hard not to take the issue personally, he said. “I know what the community looks like, I know their names,” Saldaña said. “They look like my friends and my neighbors and my father. They are my home.”

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