Statement: TOP Thanks Mayor for Agreeing to Bring SB4 Lawsuit to a Vote

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The following is a statement by Mary Moreno, director of communications of the Texas Organizing Project, in response to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s tweet announcing that he will ask the City Council to vote on joining a lawsuit to stop SB4 later this month:

“We applaud Mayor Sylvester Turner for listening to the concerns of the community and agreeing to ask the City Council to join a lawsuit to stop SB4.

“The most diverse city in America shouldn’t be on the sidelines when it comes to fighting a law that will effectively encourage and legalize racial profiling. Fearing that police will be able to ask for immigration status when a person is stopped for any reason does not fit with the profile of a welcoming city.

“We need every major Texas city to stand up to Gov. Greg Abbott’s continued attempts to marginalize and criminalize people of color. Joining a lawsuit to stop SB4 would show the community that the Mayor and City Council are on their side.

“Now we ask the Mayor and City Council members to vote the right way and join a lawsuit to stop SB4. Dallas, El Paso, Austin and San Antonio have already done so. We can’t continue sitting on the sidelines.”

Civil Rights Groups, Fearing Racial Profiling, Sue Texas Over SB 4

Houston members

And so it begins: Civil rights groups and local government leaders have sued Governor Greg Abbott and the great state of Texas over the so-called “show me your papers” bill, Senate Bill 4.

Alongside El Paso County and its sheriff, Richard Wiles, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, alleging that SB 4 is a discriminatory, unconstitutionally vague bill that encourages racial profiling and violates protections against unlawful search and seizure. The plaintiffs have also named Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw as defendants.

“For over a quarter-century, TCRP has successfully challenged discriminatory laws targeting immigrant communities in Texas. SB4 is no different,” Efrén C. Olivares, the racial and economic justice director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “All Texans, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to live free of harassment and discrimination. The ‘show me your papers’ law targets communities that have been attacked by both the state and federal governments already, further upending the lives of immigrant families throughout Texas.”

Slated to go into effect in September, SB 4 prohibits law enforcement agencies from adopting any policy that “discourages” officers from asking people about their immigration status. Police can ask about immigration status not just during an arrest, but while detaining someone for any purpose. The law also requires all sheriffs and police chiefs to honor ICE detainers, which are requests that suspected undocumented immigrants be held in the county jail until federal agents can pick them up. Should police leaders fail to “enforce immigration law,” they can be removed from office and charged with a crime; their jurisdictions can also face a steep civil fine. As the plaintiffs argue, “immigration law” is too vague for such a high price to be paid. The law even says police can’t “endorse” policies that conflict with SB 4, which seems to indicate that even just voicing a dissenting opinion publicly can cause police to lose their badge. Plaintiffs argue this chills First Amendment rights.

The real crux of the lawsuit, though, is its focus on how SB 4 could invite racial profiling, therefore violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

TCRP pulled no punches in introducing SB 4, saying that “SB 4 invites racial profiling, permitting officers to demand ‘papers’ from virtually any person in Texas at any time. History and logic supports that all Texans will not be equally subject to this harassment: Texans of Hispanic heritage and immigrants and their families, particularly those from Mexico, Central America and other Spanish-speaking countries, will be targeted.”

“We’ve joined this lawsuit because SB4 would be destructive and hurtful, not only to the people of color who will be subject to increased racial profiling, but to the state’s economy and safety,” said Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. “It seems everyone in this state, except the white men who voted for SB4, is aware that nothing good will come from this law.”

In El Paso, more than 82 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to the lawsuit. As police leaders from El Paso, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Arlington have made clear to lawmakers, they believe that SB 4 actually poses a public safety threat given that it will erode trust between police and immigrant communities, possibly causing them to fear reporting crimes and cooperating with police as witnesses. (Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, in fact, railed against the law during an impassioned speech last month.)

“It is insulting to the people and leaders of El Paso that the Texas Legislature continues to erode the policy decision-making and sovereignty of local communities based on irrational, unfounded ‘fears’ of immigrants,” TCRP wrote in the lawsuit. Taking away local police leaders’ ability to create their own policies related to immigration, TCRP also argues SB 4 violates separation of powers.

Last week, city leaders from all of those cities announced their support for litigation, indicating that they would be launching a coordinated protest against SB 4 through lawsuits and organized action this summer.

Like every highly controversial piece of legislation that comes out of the Texas Lege, be it voting rights restrictions, reproductive rights restrictions or LGBT rights restrictions, the legal battles are bound to extend for months or years.

This time, in fact, Paxton was, oddly, the first to take legal action regarding SB 4, asking a federal court to declare the law constitutional so that advocacy groups would have to settle down. Apparently, that hasn’t slowed them down.

This story originally appeared 5/23/2017 in the Houston Press.

Gov. Abbott Doesn’t Seem to Know What’s Actually In His New Immigration Law

SB4 Abbott signing

On Monday, news came of yet another lawsuit filed against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton over a new law that’s expected to extend the reach of federal immigration enforcement into local police departments.

The latest suit, filed by El Paso County officials and the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund (which is being represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project), echoes the widespread concern among immigrant and civil rights groups that Senate Bill 4, which will allow local cops to ask about immigration status in even routine police encounters, will open the door to racial profiling, particularly against Hispanics. The suit also argues that anti-immigrant rhetoric fueled the bill’s passage through the Texas Legislature earlier this year. “There are many legal flaws with SB 4,” the lawsuit alleges. “Racial animus fueled SB 4’s enactment, tainting the entire law with an impermissible legislative purpose.”

The filing comes after Abbott, in an Express-News op-ed, accuses those opposed to the law of “purposeful fearmongering.” He wrote that people who haven’t committed a crime have no reason to fear the law, regardless of immigration status. He said the law only requires local jails to honor immigration detainers “issued for violent criminals.”

None of which is what the bill Abbott signed into law behind closed doors earlier this month actually says. The law bars police departments in cities like San Antonio from enforcing policies that currently prohibit cops from asking about immigration status in routine law enforcement encounters. That means, as the bill’s author even admitted when questioned on the Texas Senate floor, that departments could not longer stop a cop from asking about citizenship during a traffic stop if he or she wants to. (Abbott’s office hadn’t responded to our questions as of Tuesday morning.)

The bill would also force police departments and sheriff’s offices to obey requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally — so-called “detainers” that immigration attorneys and even one federal court have said are flawed, fall well below the legal standard of a warrant and are most likely unconstitutional. Bexar County currently abides by, and has even been sued because of, those detainers. In fact, it was Travis County’s new policy of requiring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to file warrants for people it wants the county to hold (with the exception of people jailed for violent or otherwise serious offenses) that triggered Abbott’s war on so-called “sanctuary cities” in the first place. The feds apparently don’t even consider Austin a “sanctuary city.”

Under SB 4, which is slated to go into effect September 1, law enforcement officials who don’t cooperate with the feds risk a Class A misdemeanor charge and steep fines. The law even applies to college and university campus police departments.

While opponents have promised a “summer of resistance” against SB 4, legal challenges over the law have been piling up ever since Abbott signed. After its passage, Paxton filed an unusual, pre-emptive lawsuit against Austin officials seeking to declare the law constitutional. Since then, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Maverick County and the city of El Cenizo, a tiny border town that is likely the state’s oldest “sanctuary city,” have sued in hopes of blocking the law and declaring it unconstitutional.

The lawsuit filed in San Antonio federal court by El Paso County officials on Monday argues that SB 4, if enacted, would violate due process rights and constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

“All law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions that opt to stay out of immigration enforcement face stringent civil liability,” the lawsuit says. “And, persons in Texas, particularly Mexican-Americans, those of Hispanic descent, and immigrants and their families, will be caught in the crossfire.”

One added wrinkle to El Paso County’s lawsuit is a 2006 court settlement that appears to directly conflict with the new immigration law. Officials there agreed to policies that prohibit the local sheriff’s office from enforcing civil immigration law after deputies were caught conducting immigration checks at roadside checkpoints — policies that, under SB 4, would no longer be allowed in Texas law enforcement agencies.

This story originally appeared 5/23/2017 in the San Antonio Current.