Texas Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) speaks against the state's "sanctuary cities" on April 26 in the Capitol.
Texas Representative Rafael Anchia in the Capitol Eric Gay/AP

El Paso, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and others appeared in court to stop a state law cracking down on sanctuary cities.

Mayors and council members from cities across Texas descended on San Antonio today in a massive statewide effort to upend a sweeping new law cracking down on sanctuary cities. Senate Bill 4, the most aggressive such law in the country, imposes steep penalties on jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal immigration requests and enables any law-enforcement agents—even campus officers for colleges or school districts—to ask anyone they stop for his or her immigration status.

Officials from Austin, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, and the tiny border town El Cenizo appeared before a federal court on Monday to argue for a preliminary injunction against S.B. 4, which is slated to come into effect on September 1. Those officials were joined by representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the city of San Antonio and several nonprofit organizations earlier this month.

Both the law—signed by Governor Greg Abbott on Facebook Live back in May—and the response it has generated are unprecedented in scale. The town of El Cenizo introduced the legal action on May 8, the day after Abbott signed the anti–sanctuary cities bill into law. Since then, mayors and councils across the state have released a cascade of statements announcing their intent to join the suit. Now that the Houston City Council voted 10–6 last week to join the lawsuit against S.B. 4, all of the Lone Star State’s major cities have entered the melee.

The U.S. Department of Justice is not sitting this one out on the sidelines. On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed a statement of interest in El Cenizo, Texas, et al. v. Texas, siding with the state.

“This is the first time [in] as long as anybody can remember that there’s coordination among our cities to lodge a complaint against the governor and against the state to further a progressive cause together,” says Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar.

Visitors line up inside the rotunda of the Texas Capitol earlier in June. (Eric Gay/AP)

According to organizers who put Texas cities on the path to today’s face-off against the state, the effort has been led by workers and immigrants—those with the most to lose if and when S.B. 4 takes effect.

Jose Garza, executive director for the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that represents the labor rights of low-wage workers in Texas, notes that undocumented workers make up 50 percent of the construction workforce in Texas. The state has the second-largest undocumented immigrant population in the country (and none of California’s progressive legislative bona fides). Garza says that his organization’s members worry that S.B. 4 will exacerbate the perils that construction workers already face, which include wage theft and dangerous working conditions—especially in the South.

“Immediately, Workers Defense and a coalition of allies we worked very closely with during the [Texas legislative] session, including United We Dream, grassroots leadership, and others, began to plan a series of actions,” Garza says. Those actions culminated in a major protest at the state capitol. Thousands showed up on May 29, during the final day of the legislative session, which turned unexpectedly hot. Lawmakers scuffled after Representative Matt Rinaldi, a Republican from Irving, said that he had called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to detain or deport protestors. Following the dust-up, Rinaldi allegedly threatened to shoot a Democratic colleague from Eagle Pass, Representative Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez.  

“Those moments have only added fuel to the fire,” Garza says. “Since then, our important allies, like the Texas Organizing Project, got to work in San Antonio, where they have an incredible amount of strength, and helped move the city council there to join the litigation. Workers Defense Project—again, working with the Texas Organizing Project and other allies—worked around the clock in Dallas, made city council visits, and did other work to make sure the Dallas City Council was hearing from their community, to get them to enter into the fight.”

Garza adds, “Workers Defense Project ourselves, we like to lead by example, so we sued the state of Texas.”

Mary Moreno, communications director for the Texas Organizing Project—a nonprofit organization that represents black and Latino workers in Harris, Dallas, and Bexar Counties, three of the state’s most populous—says that workers and activists have modulated their strategies based on the city.

“In San Antonio, it’s not such a strong mayor. We knew we could get it done without the mayor’s support, and we knew we didn’t have the mayor’s support in San Antonio,” Moreno says. “That’s why we focused more on the council members. In Dallas, you do have a stronger mayor, so you start there. Also in Houston. Without the mayor in Houston, you can’t move [the lawsuit]. So you have to move him first.”

Moreno says that the Texas Organizing Project represents people with all kinds of immigration status: mostly working-class folks, some citizens and residents, some undocumented, some from mixed-status families. She says that all of them, regardless of their immigration status, face the potential for harassment under S.B. 4 due to racial profiling. In the organization’s run-up to Monday’s court hearing, members themselves—hotel workers, service-industry staff—met with council members, mayors, and other officials to lobby for action against the anti–sanctuary cities measure.

Monday’s hearing follows concerted legal challenges led by El Paso and El Cenizo. Those followed a stand-off earlier in the year between Abbott and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who said in January that she would refuse to honor federal immigration detainers. (Detainers refer to requests from ICE for local jails to hold people suspected of violating federal immigration law, regardless of whether the jail has any reason to continue detaining them.)

Back in January, Abbott told “Fox & Friends” that he would pursue legislation that would enable him to remove Hernandez from office. While Hernandez has said she will comply with S.B. 4, in a twist, U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia ruled those federal detainers unconstitutional earlier in June. Garcia is hearing the multi-city suit against the state.

“This law cracks down on policies like the Travis County sheriff, who declared that she would not detain known criminals accused of violent crimes,” Abbott said in his Facebook message. “Those policies are ‘sanctuary city’ policies and won’t be tolerated in Texas.”

Casar and activist leaders said that Austin suffered ICE raids in February, a consequence they attribute to Hernandez’s recalcitrance. (ICE did not respond to requests for comment.) Casar says that the raids had a chilling effect on his district, which is 70 percent Latino: church attendance plummeted, and reporting to law enforcement declined. “People abandoned their homes that they owned,” he says.

Tom Wong, a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, testified on Monday about some of the consequences of ICE raids and the S.B. 4 debate. In 2017, SNAP participation in Austin has declined by 21 percent, while school absenteeism has increased 152 percent, he said. Both of those effects were spurred by changes in the behavior of Latino families.

Erica Grieder, a senior editor for Texas Monthly, sees a partisan realignment afoot in Texas. Job diversification and growth that observers described as the “Texas Miracle”—while the rest of the country was mired in recession—seemed like proof-positive that Republicans could steer growth while expanding opportunity. (Texas was one of the first states in the nation to admit undocumented students into higher education and grant them in-state tuition.) Grieder describes the abrupt about-face by Abbott as “the unraveling of the Republican Party of Texas.” Moreno calls Abbott “worse than Trump.”

S.B. 4 also represents a fierce geographic realignment, one that broadly finds urban liberals united in agreement against rural conservatives. Before the Abbott administration, the divide was neither pronounced nor a priority, Grieder says. In the long run, activists contend, the new dispensation won’t work out in the GOP’s favor.

“I think Governor Greg Abbott better pray that the federal court saves him and enjoins S.B. 4. Because there is a movement growing in the state of Texas,” Garza says. “If this bill isn’t stopped by the federal courts, that movement is only going to become more powerful, and more disappointed with leadership that focuses on politics above the basic needs of working people.”

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