Norma Herrera was running late for class at the University of Texas Pan-American when she saw the Pharr police cruiser pull up behind her car and activate his lights. Stopped for failure to display her front license plate, the officer asked Herrera for her driver’s license. Herrera told him she didn’t have one; she says she couldn’t lie when the officer asked why not. Because I’m undocumented, she told him.
As Herrera testified before state lawmakers at a Texas Senate hearing earlier this month, she’ll be forever grateful that the officer who pulled her over 10 years ago, in her words, “saw in me a neighbor first, and not a criminal,” letting her go with a ticket and not turning her over the feds for violating immigration law.
The notion of a “sanctuary city” – a local jurisdiction with policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials, or even discourage or outright prohibit local cops from asking about immigration status in routine police encounters – has until recently been a hazy concept and ill-defined problem for conservative lawmakers in Texas, one of those zombie issues they revive each session that fails to go anywhere.
Only this session is different. After a campaign fueled by fear over undocumented immigrants, President Donald Trump has already vowed to withhold grant funding to cities or counties that don’t fully cooperate with the federal immigration crackdown he promised on the campaign trail. Perhaps that’s why Texas Republicans started this legislative session with renewed urgency to abolish “sanctuary cities.”
And this session they got a convenient target: newly elected Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who announced in a YouTube video to constituents on January 20 that, true to her campaign promise, she’d change how her office interacts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Hernandez says her office will no longer honor every single “detainer” that comes from ICE, routine requests from the feds that local jails or law enforcement hold people in custody, even if their local charges have been dismissed or otherwise resolved. Immigration attorneys argue that such ICE requests are oftentimes flawed, haphazard and fall far below the legal standard of a warrant or judge’s order. Some have even challenged their constitutionality in court, including in a lawsuit filed on behalf of an undocumented immigrant detained in the Bexar County jail for more than two months after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed last year.
Under Travis County’s new policy, jailers only comply with ICE detainers if a suspect has been accused of sexual assault, murder or human smuggling – or, that is, unless the feds just get a warrant or court order, in which case the county says it will detain whoever the feds want.
Hernandez and her supporters in the immigrant rights community say the reason behind the policy is two-fold: First, to keep undocumented people accused of low-level crimes from clogging jails meant for serious offenders; and second, to guarantee immigrant communities feel comfortable enough reporting crime, regardless of their status.
“The public must be confident that local law enforcement is focused on local public safety, not on federal immigration enforcement,” Hernandez said in her video. “Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers.”
After Hernandez announced her new policy, all 20 Republicans in the Texas Senate quickly signed a letter condemning it, demanding the sheriff “rescind it immediately.” Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to announced he’d fight to “remove from office,” and possibly even file civil and criminal charges against, any sheriff or law enforcement official in the state who won’t “fully cooperate” with federal immigration officials. The day after declaring sanctuary cities an “emergency” item for the session, Abbott blocked $1.5 million in state grant funding to Travis County, much of which had been earmarked for rehab and diversion programs, like a veterans treatment court. Travis County commissioners voted last week to eliminate 14 positions that fell under programs impacted by Abbott’s cuts.
However, it’s not just “sanctuaries” like Travis County that are in the crosshairs of Senate Bill 4, the legislation Abbott has fast-tracked through the statehouse. Even though officials in San Antonio insist we’re not a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants, we’re still on a collision course with the bill. And, like Travis County, we’ve got a lot to lose if state or federal officials determine we’re out of line with any sanctuary city ban. In a memo sent to the mayor and city council in late January, San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley listed each grant the city receives from federal or state coffers, totaling $139 million in federal grants and $14 million in state funding.
The problem, as far as SB4 is concerned, is that the San Antonio Police Department has policies on the books directing officers not to inquire about citizenship or legal residency in everyday police encounters. Under the bill, which cleared the full Texas Senate last week and now moves onto the House, SAPD would have to either rescind its policy or risk losing state grant funding. In its most recent version, lawmakers even expanded the bill to cover college and university campus police departments.
At a recent forum debating the bill, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus called Republicans’ anti-sanctuary cities push “damaging to local law enforcement,” and asked that lawmakers please stop “meddling in local police departments.” He worried the bill could alienate the city and state’s large immigrant community (an estimated 1.5 million undocumented people statewide, some 71,000 of them in Bexar County), and make it difficult for local cops to do their real job – to prevent and solve local crimes.
McManus also worried the bill could lead to allegations of racial profiling, adding, “People are already afraid of the police. … To force us to ask about immigration status is just going to reinforce that.”
The chief echoed those concerns when he testified against the bill in Austin. Others from San Antonio who testified against SB4, like South Side city councilman Rey Saldaña, explained why they took the bill so personally. Saldaña told lawmakers how his father, who was undocumented for about half his life, used to tell him stories about immigration raids at the slaughter house where he worked. His dad always had a hiding spot behind an AC unit where he'd wait out the raid. Once, one guy was so desperate he jumped inside a carcass to avoid immigration agents.
"These are the types of folks we're talking about," Saldaña said. "We're not talking about criminals."
Even though studies have shown no link between immigration and violent crime (in fact, data from one Pew Research Center study indicates immigrants commit less crime than people born in the country), Sen. Charles Perry, SB4’s Republican author, insists his bill “is about law and order.” He got downright Biblical during a Senate hearing earlier this month, quoting scripture before saying, “The only reason government exists is to protect good and punish evil.” At one point, he read through (he claims, “reluctantly”) a list of people who he says died at the hands of undocumented immigrants in the state – not unlike President Trump’s recent order that the feds start compiling and publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by “aliens.”
Some say Trump’s recent push to boost cooperation between ICE and local cops make the kind of anti-sanctuary cities bill proposed in Texas all the more concerning. Lance Curtright, a San Antonio immigration attorney who testified against SB4 earlier this month, says the Trump Administration’s recent executive order on immigration enforcement greatly expands who’s eligible for detention and deportation, pushes for local cops to more fully cooperate and coordinate with ICE, and increases the number of federal immigration agents.
“It’s basically asking for complete collusion with local police on the enforcement of immigration law, and I think it’s going to be a real tragedy for Texas and communities across the country,” he told the Current.
After hearing 16 hours of testimony earlier this month, SB4 went before the full Texas Senate last week, where it passed along party lines after some six hours of floor debate. While it’s unclear what kind of version might pass out of the Texas House (or when that slower-moving chamber might actually get around to it), many observers expect some version of the bill to hit Abbott’s desk.
Meanwhile, undocumented students like Andrea Soto have asked lawmakers to consider what the bill could do to people like them and their families. Testifying before the Senate committee earlier this month, Soto told lawmakers she was brought into the country at age 10, and now attends the University of Texas at Austin, where she’ll soon graduate with a chemistry degree. A recipient of Obama’s so-called deferred action plan for childhood arrivals to the country, or DACA, Soto’s been temporarily shielded from deportation and allowed to work; during her testimony, after midnight in the Texas Senate chambers, she wore blue hospital scrubs “because I work three part-time jobs.”
She appeared to choke back tears as she urged lawmakers to consider what their bill could do to her and her family: “Your bill is filling families with fear.”
Many in the immigrant community called President Barack Obama the "deporter-in-chief" long before Trump railed about kicking “bad hombres” out of the country.
Under Obama, as Congress flailed and failed to pass any kind of immigration reform, the feds ramped up enforcement of immigration laws and created a sprawling system of detention and deportation that ultimately saw more immigrants removed from the country than under any other president in American history.
It was under the Obama Administration that some cities and counties bucked against ICE efforts to foster more cooperation with local cops, fearing they risked alienating local immigrant communities. Even San Antonio, where officials have consistently vowed to cooperate with ICE, bristled when the feds pushed it. In 2010, city officials complained to ICE that immigrants who’d been pulled into municipal court to pay off low-level fines were being detained by the feds; ICE, in turn, complained the city was releasing too many people before the feds could get to them. In 2011, then-Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz denied ICE’s request to set up a “pilot program” in the jail to screen for undocumented immigrants coming to visit family and friends in lockup; Ortiz said he feared such a policy would lead to racial profiling.
As immigrant rights activists argued that too many people with deep ties to the country – like people with U.S. citizen kids – were being deported for minor offenses, the administration had to clarify its priorities for deportation several times. Obama ultimately passed protections for Dream Act students, those brought to the country illegally as children through no fault of their own and who have since gone on to college or military service. In a November 2014 speech, Obama promised to focus immigration enforcement on “felons not families, criminals not children.” Still, many activists and immigration attorneys say he broke that promise. Analysis by the Marshall Project last year showed that even after Obama’s “felons not families” speech, about 60 percent of immigrants deported had no criminal conviction other than immigration-related offenses, like illegal entry or re-entry. Some 21 percent had been convicted of non-violent crimes other than immigration; fewer than 20 percent appeared to have convictions for violent crime.
The Obama Administration handed its system of deportation and detention over to a president who has since ordered that the number of federal immigration enforcement officers be tripled. One recent Los Angeles Times analysis estimates that as many as 8 million immigrants could fall under Trump’s recently expanded priorities for deportation, or about five times as many as under Obama.
Which might in part explain the recent groundswell of fear among immigrant rights activists in Texas and across the country. During the marathon session of public testimony on the anti-sanctuary cities bill at a Texas Senate committee hearing early this month, rumors swirled about looming ICE raids that never materialized. When the entire Texas Senate debated SB4 last week, Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, hinted at that fear when he talked about undocumented students at the University of Houston who’d been attending information sessions at the school’s legal center to learn how to prepare for the worst – that is, a Trump Administration that doesn’t renew protections for Dreamers, expands who’s eligible for deportation, and increases the reach of federal immigration enforcement via closer cooperation with local cops.
“There’s Dreamers out there concerned that they could all of a sudden have an ICE detainer put on them,” Whitmire said, explaining why some people are so troubled by any state bill that exacerbates those federal enforcement efforts.
Perry, the bill’s Republican author, took a largely defensive tone throughout the many grueling hours of testimony and hearings. He dismissed fears that the bill would further push undocumented immigrants into the shadows and make them less likely to report crime, and repeatedly pointed to a provision of the law that exempts crime victims and witnesses – despite law enforcement officials who testified that it’s not always that cut and dry. Robert Flores, a commander with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, said, for instance, there might be a suspect involved in illegally transporting migrants who finds out that people are being trafficked against their will – someone that law enforcement wants to come forward and cooperate with police. “Delineating between a witness and suspect … the reality isn’t always that black and white during the course of an investigation,” he told lawmakers.
Meanwhile, headlines from across the country last week made immigrant communities and advocates even more jumpy as SB4 made its final passage through the Texas Senate. First, ICE arrested a longtime Phoenix resident and 36-year-old mother of U.S. citizen kids after she showed up for a routine case review with federal officials; the woman, who had lived in the country since she was 14, was caught several years ago using a fake social security number to work at a local water park. During her arrest, protesters surrounded an ICE van for nearly three hours to try to block her deportation; one activist even bound himself to the van’s tire.
Then by Friday last week, rumors of widespread ICE raids in Central Texas reached a fever pitch. After a day of unconfirmed reports that underscored advocates’ worst fears (including shaky claims of random ICE checkpoints), San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro confirmed that ICE had indeed launched what he called a “targeted operation” in South and Central Texas dubbed “Operation Cross Check.” The feds called the operation routine, the kind Obama carried out under the same name at least half a dozen times in recent years to arrest and deport thousands of immigrants (critics and immigration attorneys have argued previous “Operation Cross Check” raids have swept up people with years-old, trivial offenses).
Federal officials were quick to argue that what happened last week wasn’t new – in a statement, ICE called reports of checkpoints and random immigration sweeps “false, dangerous and irresponsible.” On Monday, ICE confirmed that it had arrested 51 immigrants "in San Antonio and the surrounding areas" during the operation, 23 of whom had criminal convictions.
The quick outrage and massive calls for organized resistance, however, does feel new, perhaps inspired by lingering concerns that, even if what happened last week was the kind of routine enforcement action that happened under Obama, we might soon see more of it – not just because of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration, but also because of the recent executive order he signed on immigration enforcement, which calls for increasing ICE agents from 5,000 to 15,000.
Add to that the Trump Administration’s new enforcement guidelines, which immigration attorneys warn could set the stage for a sweeping dragnet, and SB4 starts to look even scarier to people like Diego Bernal, a San Antonio state representative, civil rights lawyer and former San Antonio city council member. Bernal told a panel at UTSA last month that he fears policies coming from the Trump Administration could weaponize the kind anti-sanctuary cities legislation brewing at the Texas Legislature. “I’m really, really concerned about how these two things work together,” he said.
Last week, amid frantic reports of sweeping immigration raids in Central Texas, some immigrant rights advocates started to urge calm. Amy Fischer, policy director at RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides legal assistance and other help to refugees, told the Current, “We need to be careful we aren’t creating fear that will further push our undocumented communities into the shadow.”
Fischer says it’s extremely important now that undocumented communities (and their allies) focus their energy on understanding their rights for when — or if — an ICE raid occurs, instead of clinging to unverified claims or rumors of looming sweeps.
“We don’t want people to live their lives in fear,” Fischer said. “That’s exactly what Trump wants.”
Julio Trujillo Santoyo didn’t understand why he was still locked up in the Bexar County Jail.
On January 20, 2016, court records show Trujillo was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend – his charging documents accused him of “striking her with [his] elbow.” In late March, however, prosecutors dismissed the charge against him because of an “uncooperative witness.” The girlfriend says in an affidavit she later filed in court that the two were scheduled to be married and that she “wanted to help him get out of jail as quickly as possible.”
But Trujillo was living in the country illegally. According to an affidavit he later filed in court, he first immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1983, when he was just 4 years old. He attended grade school in Chicago and high school in Atlanta before moving to Texas. His parents are U.S. citizens, so are two of his children and his grandchild. Other than the misdemeanor that landed him in jail, records show no other criminal history. Court documents do, however, indicate he was deported in late 2001; it’s unclear when he re-entered the country.
Trujillo and his girlfriend say they repeatedly asked jail officials why he was still being held even after his charge was dismissed. Jailers blamed it on an immigration detainer ICE filed for him the day of his arrest, yet strangely, whenever Trujillo’s girlfriend called ICE officials to ask about his status, they told her he wasn’t on their list for pickup and that no detention request had been filed. In late April, Trujillo sent a note to jailers asking, “What’s my release date? And do I have a bond or what? My case has already been dismissed. Let me know something.” The response, according to documents filed in court: “Hold for ICE.”
On June 6, 2016, Trujillo’s girlfriend went to a lawyer for help. Two days after Trujillo’s attorney started asking around, the county transferred him into ICE custody. While the ICE detainer filed in January says Trujillo had a “final order of removal” filed against him, records show ICE didn’t actually get that order until June 8, 2016 – the day immigration officials evidently became aware (again) that Bexar County had someone they wanted. Trujillo ultimately filed a lawsuit against the county, saying he was unlawfully detained for more than two months. He spent a total of 76 days in Bexar County lockup after his misdemeanor charge was dismissed. He’s now in an immigrant detention center. He says he was supporting his girlfriend and her two children at the time of his arrest.
“My girlfriend was kicked out of our apartment because she could no longer afford it,” Trujillo said in an affidavit filed in court. “We had a three-bedroom apartment which was completely furnished, and she had to sell all our furniture to make ends meet.”
Trujillo’s attorney, Lance Curtright, wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the case because it’s still in litigation, but he did point to Trujillo’s experience as sign of how sloppy – and, he argues, unconstitutional – ICE’s detainer system is. He argues that policies like those in Travis County, which require ICE to get a warrant if it wants local cops to hold onto someone not charged with a serious offense, should be the norm. Curtright says “sanctuary city” is the wrong title – “I’d just call it a ‘constitutional city.’”
So far, there’s no indication that Bexar County plans on changing how it honors ICE detainers. In testimony before the legislature last year, former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau said the county complies with all ICE requests to hold onto people in lockup. Her successor, Sheriff Javier Salazar, didn’t respond to interview requests we sent to his office. While he sent a letter to lawmakers earlier this month expressing concern with SB4, Salazar has mentioned no plans to change how the county complies with ICE detention requests. To Curtright, it underscores how ridiculous it is to even consider San Antonio a city with “sanctuary” policies.
Up the road in Travis County, the sky doesn’t seem to have fallen due to Sheriff Hernandez’s new ICE detainer policy. ICE officials confirmed last week that they’re now just filing for warrants on people they want the county to keep in custody – more than 40 people last week. While lawmakers like Perry and Abbott insist Travis County’s flouting the law, Hernandez says she’s just treating ICE like any other law enforcement agency – and requiring that it obtain lawful orders and warrants before asking that county officials detain someone on their behalf. Travis County lawmakers and activists have been trying to recover the grant money Abbott axed through fundraising and donations.
One thing that is clear about the state’s bill cracking down on sanctuary cities: Not only do most major metro law enforcement officials in the state not want it, neither do the vast majority of people willing to come out and testify on it. Of the 272 people who testified on the bill before the senate committee early this month, only eight supported it it.
Norma Herrera was one of the hundreds who waited several hours outside the senate chambers so she could go before lawmakers and call the bill dangerous and unnecessary.
In the decade since her traffic stop near the Texas border, Herrera told lawmakers, she’s become a legal permanent resident, obtained bachelor’s and graduate degrees and even interned with the Texas Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
“I have made contributions in our state, and I ask that I please not be ignored,” she pleaded. “Please abandon these efforts to make immigrants even more disposable. Because truthfully, my story is just one example of a long Texas tradition of immigrants.”
(Alex Zielinski contributed reporting)