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Federal Judge Hears Arguments Over Texas Ban On Sanctuary Cities

Joey Palacios

A federal judge is hearing arguments Monday from cities, counties and other organizations that want to prevent the implementation of a new Texas law banning sanctuary cities.

Plaintiffs claim the new sanctuary cities ban violates the U.S. Constitution by threatening free speech and equal protection. The ban allows local law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of people who are detained, even for something as routine as a traffic stop.

Thomas Saenz is the president and general counsel for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Attorneys for MALDEF are arguing on behalf of the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. Saenz claims the sanctuary cities ban known as Senate Bill 4, is an attempt to legalize the racial profiling of Texas Hispanics

“It really is a law that would license every individual police officer in this one area of the law, immigration, to be his or her own vigilante deciding on their own what to do, when to do it and who to target,” said Saenz.

Under Senate Bill 4 local law enforcement that refused federal immigration requests to detain immigrants could lose state grant money, or their jobs.

Credit Joey Palacios / TPR

The author of the statute, Sen. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, says he’s confident it will pass constitutional muster.

“It’s going to be a real stretch to find an unconstitutional issue inside the bill because everything inside the bill is current law,” said Perry. “We were just telling law enforcement officials they have to comply or cooperate.”

So far, Texas’ biggest cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin have all joined the lawsuit. Bexar County is also a party. 

The small border community of El Cenizo with a population of 33-hundred, and Maverick County Southwest of San Antonio, were the first to file a legal challenge in May.

El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes says 20-percent of his town’s residents are undocumented. To protect them, the city passed a “safe harbor” ordinance in 1999.  It prevents local police and officials from questioning people about their immigration status. That’s a policy that won’t be permitted under the law scheduled to go into effect September 1st.

Reyes says with or without papers people living in his town are considered part of the community.

“Who have their homestead in our community, who pay property taxes, why on earth would we try to hinder upon their rights and their livelihoods just because they don’t have a piece of paper,” said Reyes.

Credit Joey Palacios / TPR

But on the banks of the Rio Grande River, which divides Texas from Mexico, there’s also opposition to the lawsuit and support for the new law. Roy Vasquez didn’t want his town of El Cenizo to challenge the law because he’s afraid his community will become a target.

“When you get into a lawsuit, you have to be careful,” said Vasquez. “The tables can be turned the other way around. We have a lot to lose here. You see we have small state funds and grants coming to the city."

And while many urban police chiefs oppose the sanctuary cities ban, the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas supports it.  Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback is the group’s legislative director.

“Senate Bill 4 doesn’t make an immigration officer out of any Texas peace officer,” said Louderback. “I mean discrimination quite a bit, which is absolutely false. We’ve been able to ask about status in this country since 2010 by a Supreme Court decision, so there’s no change at all in that.”

Louderback says the law will free up police officers to report someone to federal immigration officials if they feel the person is a public safety concern without fear of reprisal from local officials.

Orlando Garcia is the federal judge who is weighing the legal claims. He recently ruled it was unlawful for Bexar County to hold an immigrant for 72 days just because immigration agents had requested his detention. Criminal charges against the immigrant had been dropped.

What plaintiffs want now is for Garcia to put the enforcement of the sanctuary cities ban on hold, while those for and against it continue a legal debate that may last a very long time.