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Austin City Council votes to challenge Texas over new ‘sanctuary cities’ law

Friday, May 19, 2017 by Austin Monitor

By Lisa Dreher and Elizabeth Pagano

Though it has already been sued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Austin City Council can now pursue its own case against Texas’ “sanctuary cities” law.

On Thursday, Council voted to allow the city to sue the state over Senate Bill 4, and go to court even if Paxton’s lawsuit is dismissed. Council swiftly passed a resolution directing the city manager to “pursue effective litigation and defense” against the state law in a vote of 10-1, with only Council Member Ellen Troxclair dissenting.

Council Member Greg Casar, who has been a vocal opponent of the legislation, was arrested protesting the bill this month. He also penned an opinion piece for The New York Times, which ran Wednesday. Casar sponsored the Council resolution and stressed its import from the dais.

“When my colleagues and I took our oath of office to serve on the Austin City Council, we vowed to ‘protect, preserve, and defend the constitution of the United States.’ That includes fighting unconstitutional mandates by Governor Greg Abbott himself,” he said in a statement following the meeting. “This summer, my colleagues on the Austin City Council, and in many other counties and cities across this state have committed to rejecting anti-immigrant coercion by our state leaders. I hope that our vote today inspires more cities and counties across the Lone Star State to draw a line in the sand and defend the rights of all of our community members.”

Abbott signed SB 4 into law last week. It includes a controversial “show me your papers” provision that allows local law enforcement to ask about someone’s immigration status during arrest or detainment, and also threatens to remove from office elected and law enforcement officials for not complying with the law.

Mayor Steve Adler wrote an opinion piece for The Texas Tribune, published Thursday, titled “I can’t wait to see the state of Texas in court.” He reaffirmed that position during Thursday’s meeting.

“I think there are issues related to a city and a community’s ability to have their culture reflected in ordinances and rules and policies that they adopt,” Adler said. “The legislature is abridging that here, and I believe acting in an area, as well, that is federally controlled.”

Abbott has said the immigrant community has “absolutely nothing to worry about” because the law does not mean local law enforcement will detain people who have not committed crimes. That point was also made by Troxclair, who said she was encouraged to remain quiet about her opposing vote but was “forced to respond to this issue.”

“I have a specific responsibility to speak up on behalf of the people who hold a different but equally important view of the city of Austin being both welcoming and lawful,” she said.

“When I met with (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) a few months ago, I asked them if the policies of the city and county regarding illegal immigration are making the city less safe, and their answer was unequivocally yes,” Troxclair said, in a statement to the press. “I believe that the policies promoted in this resolution make the city less safe, and it will cost a significant amount of time and money.”

In supporting the resolution, Council Member Pio Renteria’s voice slightly shook as he explained attendance at his church has dropped in recent months.

“We have lost over half of our congregation. They are just so afraid to come out,” he said. “It’s a sad time that we are in here in this state. I’m very disappointed because all the hard work that I have done in my life to fight for equality … it seems like it is slowly disappearing and the hate is coming back.”

Met with a flurry of accusations that the bill and this provision violate basic rights, Paxton filed a lawsuit shortly after asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to deem the law constitutional. Paxton named all of Council’s members, Adler, Interim City Manager Elaine Hart and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez as defendants. Several other Texas jurisdictions have proposed legal action, including El Paso County, which voted on Monday to sue the state. During a gathering of City Council members on Tuesday, Dallas Council Member Philip Kingston said the city will aid Austin with its own attorneys.

Hernandez has been under fire since enacting a policy to not honor detainer requests from federal immigration agents without warrants except in cases of suspected murder, human trafficking or aggravated sexual assault. Adler met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, and said based on that discussion, he was confident Austin is not violating federal law with its policies.

“There has never been any allegation that the city has violated any state law or federal law. What the legislature has done here is to go beyond federal law and take something that is optional, voluntary and not enforceable and make it illegal and sanctionable,” said Adler, who pointed out that the Austin Police Department and other city public safety officials have testified the state law will make communities less safe.

Photo by Carlos Lowry made available through a Creative Commons license.

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