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

The Texas Organizing Project at a May Day rally against SB 4 at City Hall.
The Texas Organizing Project at a May Day rally against SB 4 at City Hall.
Meagan Flynn

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.


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