Sanctuary city crackdown about to take effect in Texas, amid court battles

An anti-sanctuary city law is about to take effect in Texas, but not without a final burst of controversy and court battles.

Senate Bill 4, set to kick into law on Sept. 1, strikes at sanctuary cities by, among other things: barring policies that prevent law enforcement from inquiring about a suspect’s immigration status, barring policies that limit enforcement of immigration laws, and requiring cities to honor immigration detainer requests.

Local officials that violate these rules could face fines up to $25,000 per day and be forced to forfeit their elected office, in addition to other punishments.

Multiple cities -- including San Antonio, Dallas and Austin -- have sued Texas over the bill. El Paso County, another plaintiff, asked a judge to rule the law unconstitutional and prohibit the entire state from enforcing it.

The lawsuit alleges SB4 is discriminatory and makes Texas less safe.

City officials in Arlington also will discuss whether to join the lawsuit at an upcoming city council meeting. Fort Worth officials voted 5-4 not to join the lawsuit on Aug. 16.

State officials, meanwhile, acted quickly to try to blunt such legal challenges.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit May 8 asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to uphold the law as constitutional. He filed the suit just after the bill was signed seeking a declaratory judgment, which he hoped would prevent multiple lawsuits and allow the constitutionality to be resolved in a single court.

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

Ultimately, a judge refused Paxton’s request for a declaratory judgment. The lawsuit against SB4 is still pending in court.

Opponents have described the law as “terrible,” “racist,” “unconstitutional,” “destructive” and “backward looking”.

But supporters believe it is needed.

“We all support legal immigration. It helped to build America and Texas,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “But legal immigration is different from harboring people who have committed dangerous crimes.”

The law has support from the Department of Justice, which filed a “Statement of Interest” in federal court. The DOJ wrote that the law ensures cooperation between local and federal government through out the state.

Robert Heyman, policy director for the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), warned the law will make people reluctant to report crime. “This is going to corrode the relationship between the police and the communities that they serve,” he said.

BNHR has had a protest every Monday since the bill was signed in May.

El Paso County Sheriff’s Department will not change any policies at its detention center when SB4 takes effect, because the department has always cooperated with federal immigration authorities, according to Sheriff’s Commander Robert Flores.

The department, though, opposed the law, claiming it could compromise the trust between the agency and members of the largely Hispanic community.

The public information office with the sheriff’s office has been working to send messages to the community in both Spanish and English that they can trust law enforcement and the department needs the community’s help to keep El Paso safe. Flores said his office is not going to go out and request citizenship information, especially from victims.

“If you haven’t been involved in a crime and you’re not the suspect of a crime and you haven’t been arrested, then that’s not going to be something we’re going to concern ourselves with,” said Flores.