SB 4 Halted for Now, but ‘Fight Isn’t Over Yet’

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Shannon Perez and Antonia Castañeda hold up signs protesting SB 4.

On Wednesday U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted a preliminary injunction to prevent key components of Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law, from going into effect. Garcia’s ruling came just two days before the law was set to go into effect.

The ruling temporarily blocks three key provisions of SB 4: the requirement to honor Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers in local jails, restrictions on the free speech of local officials, and suspicion of illegal immigration status as cause for detainment. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), explained the ruling in a conference call with members of the press.

“Texas cannot through state law expand the limited circumstance in which local law enforcement officials may perform the function of immigration informants,” Perales said. 

Gov. Greg Abbott promised a swift appeal Wednesday evening.

“Today’s decision makes Texas’ communities less safe,” he said in a statement. “Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County Sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities. U.S. Supreme Court precedent for laws similar to Texas’ law are firmly on our side. This decision will be appealed immediately and I am confident Texas’ law will be found constitutional and ultimately be upheld.”

“Texas has the sovereign authority and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton. “We’re confident SB 4 will ultimately be upheld as constitutional and lawful.”

The ruling left in place a provision that closely mirrors current law. During the course of a legal investigation or detainment where just cause has been demonstrated, local law enforcement officers may inquire about a person’s immigration status. However, they may not subsequently detain or charge people based solely on their status. They may not turn them over directly to ICE either. They may provide the information to ICE, if they choose.

MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas Saenz said during the press conference call that all people, whether they have the proper documents or not, should invoke their right to refuse to answer questions about immigration status by local law enforcement.

On Thursday morning around 50 activists and political leaders gathered outside the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse, holding signs and chanting in both English and Spanish: “The people united will never be divided.”

“This is a decision to do something about a sanctuary bill which is really nothing but a sanctuary for prejudice,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas). “We will never accept being drug backwards by those state officials that are kind of the Junior Trumps up there in Austin.”

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) speaks to the crowd gathered outside the federal courthouse.

María Victoria de la Cruz, an immigrant and member of the Texas Organizing Project, reminded those gathered at the federal courthouse Thursday that the fight to fully defeat SB 4 is not over yet.

“I am an immigrant and this law affects me in every way,” De la Cruz said in Spanish. “I have children [who fall under] DACA, others without documents, and family members who are residents. It’s a mixed status situation. Even though we have a tragedy with the flooding in Houston, we still have something to celebrate – the temporary block of SB 4.”

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Texas Organizing Project member María Victoria de la Cruz has a mixed status family that would have been negatively affected if SB 4 had gone into effect Sept. 1

De la Cruz added that there are still many fights ahead for the undocumented population, including the possible dismantling of DACA, an Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation and grants them renewable two-year work permits.

“Don’t be afraid compañeros, let’s come out and fight because this fight does not stop here, but it makes us stronger,” she said. “The police now will not have the strength and power to detain people and act like immigration authorities. We need to raise our voices still – don’t stay silent.”

The law will now be reviewed by federal courts, which will have the final say on the future of the bill. The injunction must also stand up to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, as the State seeks to reverse the injunction. It could be more than a year, Perales said, before the final fate of SB 4 is known.

Saenz said that the injunction was indeed a step, a small victory amid the “fear and confusion in the immigrant community” since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. While meaningful, Wednesday’s ruling will most likely not assuage the fears and anxiety of many, he said.

Belinda Saldaña Harmon with the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education encouraged activists and lawmakers not to be distracted by a single victory or even a single law. It is the immigration system that must be changed, she said during the press conference call. Nonetheless she praised Garcia for “preventing yet another systemic injustice.” 

The lawsuit against the State was brought by MALDEF, representing plaintiffs across the state including the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and local immigrant advocacy groups.

City staff will immediately begin analyzing Garcia’s ruling, including his lengthy opinion statements, to ensure that municipal policy is in compliance, City Attorney Andy Segovia said on the press conference call. He was “thrilled” to see the court affirm the authority of local jurisdictions.

“Cities and communities should be able to chart their own course when it comes to public safety,” Segovia said. 

While the law may allow officers to inquire about immigration status during lawful detainment, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD), Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, and other entities may advise against it or set priorities that preclude such questioning.

One of Garcia’s most extensive comments pertained to the law’s violation of First Amendment rights, Perales said. Under SB 4, public officials who openly denounce the law could be removed from office or otherwise penalized.

The limitation of free speech was a provision of SB 4 that drew extensive comment from Garcia, Perales said. The judge opined that the law was not “content neutral,” she said – it prohibited criticism of the law, but allowed praise.

“It was a strong piece of opinion and really exposed some of the flaws in SB 4,” Perales said. 

According to San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, this provision would have prevented him from doing his job as a councilman.

“The last several months have been excruciatingly complicated,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report. “It was almost impossible to come up with any policy under SB 4 that would make our community members more comfortable coming out of the shadows.”

Had the law gone into effect, Saldaña said he would have continued to speak out on behalf of his community, home to many people without legal immigration status.

“Facing the possibility of being removed from office and fined could never deter me from doing what I wholeheartedly believe is the just and right thing to do for our immigrant community and the safety of our entire city,” Saldaña said in a statement.

The mere possibility of the law going into effect had created anxiety in the community, he added.

Already law enforcement, health clinics, and schools reported that people were missing appointments, staying home, and avoiding public spaces where they might be asked about their immigration status, Saldaña said. Advocacy groups had organized “Know Your Rights” campaigns, but even they were losing access as people went into hiding. 

“We’ve been doing the ‘Know Your Rights’ training through our organization with people who are undocumented,” Rebecca Flores, an organizer with the Pro-Immigrant Coalition of San Antonio, said to the group gathered at the federal courthouse Thursday. “People are afraid so we are trying to allay those fears and tell them what their rights are under the Constitution of the United States. They do have  rights, so we just have to tell them that.

“We congratulate the courts for looking at [SB 4] through the eyes of justice,” Flores said.

Bexar County Republican Party Chair Robert Stovall told the Rivard Report by phone that the court was using a different set of lenses, saying that Garcia, a Democrat, made a political decision.

“I think we were kind of expecting this from Orlando Garcia,” Stovall said. He anticipates an appeal from the State. “Hopefully we can get the politics out of this thing and get a good ruling further on up in the court system.”

Saldaña said he is relieved to go back to a simple and nonpartisan message, at least for now: SAPD officers are the community’s partners, not immigration enforcement officers.

Hanna Oberhofer contributed to this report. 

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