Austin to pay for immigrant legal services: documented and undocumented

Immigration protesters at Austin Police Headquarters (KXAN Photo)
Immigration protesters at Austin Police Headquarters on Nov. 9, 2016 (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a 7-to-2 vote Thursday, City Council approved spending city money on legal services for immigrants living in Austin.

The measure offered by Council Member Greg Casar directs the city manager to find emergency funds for 100 people in the wake of the November election. Casar tells KXAN the money would be used to defend documented and undocumented immigrants.

The two conservative members on the council, Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, voted against the measure. Councilwoman Sheri Gallo was not present.

Mayor Steve Adler, speaking from the dias, said the driving motivation was to reinforce and protect rights already under the law. “Knowing what their rights are under the law is something that benefits us, benefits us all as a community.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman was upset the city seems to be taking a side on a federal issue: “Is there any effort to support and raise awareness with the people who don’t support illegal immigration?”

The funds would be used to contract with non-profits to work with cases on asylum seekers, visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) action and against deportations. Only low-income people would be able to use these services. The council hopes the money will be available by their next council meeting in January.

This action likely puts the city of Austin squarely at odds with the Texas Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have vowed to crack down and punish “sanctuary cities.”

KXAN reached out to the Governor’s Office. Staffers are looking into the issue, but Wednesday, Gov. Abbott told KXAN he would consider any governmental body fighting or not cooperating with federal immigration law to be a sanctuary city.

“We live in a nation that is a rule of law nation. Everybody, every governmental entity, every city, every campus is expected to follow the law,” said the governor.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, filed a law punishing sheriff departments if they don’t cooperate with immigration officials. He says he’s closely watching the city in an emailed statement.

“We will continue to closely monitor the actions of the city of Austin and other cities who choose to keep criminal aliens in our communities. The goal of banning sanctuary cities is to ensure our communities and schools are safe. I look forward to the city of Austin upholding the rule of law now and after my bill passes,” wrote Perry.

Council Member Casar Thursday told KXAN pressures from the state government and Trump administration would not change the council’s values.

“The federal government and the state government have spent a lot of time trying to stop Austin from solving our own problems. I wish they would spend their time working on improving immigrant rights, passing comprehensive immigration reforms,” said Casar. “But if they are not willing to do that I promise you Austin is going to continue trying to fix those problem ourselves, whether they get in the way or not.”

Robert Painter is the interim executive director of American Gateways, one of the largest providers of legal services in Austin. He says immigrants have the right to due process of law and against illegal searches and seizures.

“It is difficult if not impossible if not impossible for low income members of the immigrant community to access immigration benefits or legalize their status without the support of legal providers like us,” said Painter.

To give you some perspective on local immigration. Casar’s office says 1 out of every 5 people in Austin is an immigrant and specifically in his District 4, they say 1 out of every 3 people is an immigrant.