City Officials in Houston and Across Texas Announce Plans to Sue Over SB4

The Texas Organizing Project at a rally against SB 4 at City Hall on May Day. The advocacy organization joined city officials to announce plans to fight SB 4 at the Capitol Tuesday.
Meagan Flynn
The Texas Organizing Project at a rally against SB 4 at City Hall on May Day. The advocacy organization joined city officials to announce plans to fight SB 4 at the Capitol Tuesday.
City officials from the largest cities in Texas are joining arms with community activists and immigrant advocacy groups to stand up to Governor Abbott after he signed the controversial "anti-sanctuary cities" bill, Senate Bill 4.

Officials in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso unveiled what they're calling a "summer of resistance," complete with protests, community action and — most anticipated — a legal challenge against SB4 before it goes into effect in September. City councils in the cities are expected to pass resolutions this week to authorize city attorneys to take legal action against the state of Texas. El Paso County Commissioners Court authorized this on Monday, and in fact, border jurisdictions Maverick County and El Cenizo, a city in Webb County, have already sued Texas over SB 4 as well.

It looks like Governor Abbott is in for a long ride.

"Governor Abbott wants local elected officials like me and my colleagues to give in and betray our immigrant communities," said Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, who was arrested at a Capitol sit-in protest of the bill last month. "Instead, we are launching a summer of resistance alongside community organizations, and today, we announce our plan to challenge Senate Bill 4 for violating the United States constitution and for threatening to violate our residents' constitutional rights if this goes into effect."

SB 4 will allow police officers to question people about their immigration status while detaining someone for any reason, even before they have probable cause to make an arrest. The law requires all sheriffs and police chiefs to honor ICE detainers, which are requests from federal agents to detain suspected undocumented immigrants in jail until ICE can pick them up. Should police leaders fail to enforce immigration law in these manners, then they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and face jail time and removal from office.

The day after the law passed, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo railed against state leadership for ignoring his and other police leaders' serious concerns that SB 4 would actually hinder public safety — not help it. The major concern is that undocumented immigrants will be afraid to report crimes for fear of being questioned about their immigration status by police. The fact that SB 4 tied his hands, threatening him with prosecution for creating policies that prohibit officers from trying to play ICE agent, appeared to him to be insulting.

He said, "What this legislation does is say to me and my team that we don’t have the authority to keep our [officers] focused on criminals. If all the sudden I have a police officer who decides 'I’m going to go play ICE agent all day and harass day laborers at Home Depot,' explain to me, when I lose my authority to tell my officers they can’t do that, how does that enhance public safety? Tell me that with a straight face."

Houston City Councilman Robert Gallegos represented Houston at Tuesday's news conference outside the Capitol, invoking Chief Acevedo's concerns. "Nearly 80 percent of my constituents are Hispanic in District I," he said. "Many are undocumented, or have family and friends who are undocumented. They fear how this law will affect their day-to-day lives."

Austin and Travis County were the first to stand up to Governor Abbott after he threatened to take away criminal justice grant funding from any jurisdiction that did not honor ICE detainers, which he framed as being against the law. Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez had announced a new policy after taking office in which she would not honor detainers unless ICE had a warrant, or unless the detainer was for someone accused of homicide, aggravated sexual assault or continuous smuggling.

Even after Abbott followed through on his threat and took more than $1 million in funding from the county, other county officials and the city of Austin still stood behind Sheriff Hernandez. In fact, while visiting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C., Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked Sessions if he believed Austin was a "sanctuary city" and in violation of the law because of Hernandez's policy and Sessions said it was not.

Immigration attorneys the Houston Press has talked to said that any possible legal challenges would likely involve equal protection claims — since they argue Hispanics might be racially profiled and asked about immigration status while other groups wouldn't — as well as legal issues involving Abbott mandating sheriffs honor ICE detainers. A federal court in Illinois issued a court order last fall requiring ICE to obtain warrants before issuing detainer requests, which is in line with Hernandez's policy.

On Tuesday, Mayor Adler blasted Abbott for politicizing public safety in Austin by claiming Travis County's policies and Austin's support for them were jeopardizing safety and keeping criminals on the street.

"For five months, public safety in Austin and other cities has been batted around like a political football," he said. Truth is in short supply. This bill began with the suggestion that Austin was violating federal law. That's not true. It begins with a premise that cities like Austin want to keep criminals on our streets. That's not true. It begins with the premise that immigrant communities are less safe and more prone to criminal conduct — and that’s not true. It begins with the premise that federal law has not been meaningfully set, such that states like Texas can go beyond what is required by the federal government, and that's not constitutional.

In closing, he said that officials were looking forward to meeting Governor Abbott in court — where truth, and not politics, would resound.