Texas sues Austin officials ahead of expected sanctuary cities ban lawsuits

Group protesting the SB 4 law on Monday, May 8, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)
Group protesting the SB 4 law on Monday, May 8, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than a day after Senate Bill 4, a ban on sanctuary cities in Texas, was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to uphold the constitutionality of the law.

Abbott signed the sanctuary cities ban into law Sunday night in a rare Facebook Live.

“SB 4 guarantees cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement to protect Texans,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Monday. “Unfortunately, some municipalities and law enforcement agencies are unwilling to cooperate with the federal government and claim that SB 4 is unconstitutional.”

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez is named in the state’s lawsuit brought before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, along with Travis County, the city of Austin and — in their official capacity — Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members.

“I think when the Texas Attorney General is suing you, you are doing something right and I think that we have often said that Austin is a welcoming city and we often said we disagree with SB4 and its intent,” Council Member Delia Garza who represents district 2 says.

She says their fight is just beginning.

“I think this sends a message that Hispanics are not welcome in Texas and Hispanics are not valued,” Garza says.

Hernandez said last week that she would follow the ban if it were signed into law. “While I hate seeing a state law like this come to pass, I have always followed the law and that will not change,” she said.

In January, Sheriff Hernandez prohibited deputies and jailers from asking about someone’s immigration status and limited how they will work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Paxton said the federal Declaratory Judgment Act allows the state to bring a lawsuit like the one filed Monday in order to avoid a large number of lawsuits, “so that the constitutionality of SB 4 may be resolved throughout Texas in a single court.”

“One would assume they already thought it was a constitutional law when they decided to pass it, so it sounds like they’re almost admitting that it’s possible that it’s not constitutional, because why would you need a declaratory judgment stating that it is constitutional?” Garza said.

The attorney general says the lawsuit demonstrates the law is valid under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Governments throughout Texas have a clear duty to continue holding undocumented and suspected criminal aliens pursuant to ICE detainers,” Paxton said. “This is a public safety issue that requires swift resolution. If a Texas sheriff or other law enforcement authority cannot lawfully honor an ICE detainer, dangerous people will slip through the cracks of the justice system and back into our communities. As a nation of laws, it is imperative that SB 4 is fully honored in Texas.”

“The strange thing is [the lawsuit] has a lot of factual inaccuracies, including saying that the city of Austin is not complying with SB4, but SB4 hasn’t even gone into effect yet,” Garza says.

In response to the lawsuit, District 4 Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said he and his colleagues are being sued for questioning the constitutionality of “this immoral and unethical law.”

“Texas’ top leaders are trying to coerce local elected officials into betraying our immigrant communities,” Casar wrote. “They cannot crush our solidarity or our Constitution.”

The city of Austin said in a response they have opposed this legislation from the beginning. “Our law enforcement professionals have told us this legislation will make our community less safe by degrading the relationship between our residents and the police who protect them.”

The city’s statement continued, “The Law Department will defend the protected speech of our Mayor, City Council members, and City Manager who have been personally named in this lawsuit.”

SB4 effects on groups fighting domestic violence

SAFE is a non-profit group that dedicates their time and resources to helping victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Their leaders say even if SB4 has not gone into effect yet, they’re already seeing a decrease in client reporting because of fear.

“At times we’ll get some of our clients who don’t even answer the door, just because of the fear that were associated with ICE,” Joanna Argueta, a parent educator for the Strong Start program, said.

The program helps trauma victims find new patterns and ways of life to lead to healthier, positive futures.

“The struggles these families have gone through is something that at times is indescribable, at times is hard to even listen to,” Argueta says.

Now they’re shying away from getting help.

“We have seen an impact in individuals who are Spanish preferred speaking call on the hotline over the course from January until now,” Victoria Berryhill, communications coordinator for SAFE says. “We also saw in January a significant spike in people calling in, requesting information about immigration and requesting information about how we would react to documentation status.”

Beryhill says SAFE will never ask for anyone’s documentation status. She says their number one goal is to promote safety. The organization has also seen a high number of clients asking for forensic sexual assault exams, but not moving forward with police investigations.

“Coming in to have a sexual assault forensic exam does not require you to report to law enforcement, we have about a five day window where we can collect DNA evidence after a sexual assault has occurred, however you can come in for an exam at any point in time,” Berryhill explains. “People are scared in the community and scared and they’re unsure of which agency and organization is found by which laws.”

If you or someone you know needs any help or services, call 512-267-SAFE (7233) or visit their website at Safeaustin.org/chat.

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