SB4 takes Texas’ war with Austin statewide

Cities across the state will face severe consequences if they don’t comply with immigration crackdowns.

A group of protesters rally during a sit-in at the Texas Department of Insurance building in Austin, Texas on Monday, May 1, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Meredith Hoffman
A group of protesters rally during a sit-in at the Texas Department of Insurance building in Austin, Texas on Monday, May 1, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Meredith Hoffman

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) wants to make it clear: undocumented immigrants are not welcome in his state.

On Sunday, while appearing on Facebook Live, Abbott signed SB4, a controversial piece of legislation that penalizes law enforcement officials who refuse to cooperate with federal authorities on detaining and turning over undocumented immigrants. It will take effect on September 1. The law, which is similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 passed in 2010, also authorizes law enforcement to inquire about immigration status during any and all detentions. Refusing to comply with federal detainer requests is considered a Class A misdemeanor (punishable by up to either a $4,000 fine and/or a year in prison) upon the first offense, with a civil penalty resulting in a fine of $25,500 per day also possible, as well as removal from elected or appointed office.

Texas’ new legislation is in line with national efforts. Donald Trump’s administration has made cracking down on immigration a key focus. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a plan to deny sanctuary cities funding via grants by the Office of Justice Programs if they refused to hand over undocumented immigrants to federal officials. But the effort was abruptly halted in April when a federal judge in San Francisco found it unconstitutional, dealing Trump another legislative blow.

Texas is proof that efforts at the state level could succeed where federal endeavors have failed. In many ways, the Texas government has even been a step ahead of Trump when it comes to anti-immigrant sentiment. On a call with local advocates Monday, Mary Moreno, the Communications Director for the Texas Organizing Project, emphasized the Abbott administration’s history of targeting undocumented immigrants.


“We were a precursor to Trump,” she said. “We’ve had a Trump in office for two years now. This is what happens when you elect a bigot to power.”

Arguably, it is the state’s capital that lies at the center of the debate in Texas. Located only a few hours from the border, Austin, situated in Travis County, is not officially a sanctuary city, though the definition of the term is vague. According to census estimates, around 35 percent of Austin’s residents are Hispanic, and the city enjoys a vibrant culture influenced by the community. Raids and deportations were a fact of life under former President Barack Obama, and a sanctuary movement quickly cropped up in Austin in an effort to protect residents. Under Trump, that movement has seen new life — but pushback has been equally energized.

Late last month, Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) reached out to the Department of Justice for clarification about the designation. In response, he was told that the Trump administration did not consider either Austin or the larger Travis County area to be a sanctuary zone. But that narrative runs counter to the one currently playing out. In January, Abbott crossed swords with Travis County’s new sheriff Sally Hernandez, who followed Trump’s inauguration with a declaration of her own. Honoring a promise she had made on the campaign trail, she vowed she would no longer honor jail detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.)

“We cannot afford to make our community less safe by driving people into the shadows,” Hernandez said in a YouTube message. “As local law enforcement officers, we will not interrogate or arrest someone over an unrelated federal immigration matter if they are trying to report a crime.”

Abbott fired back at Hernandez while speaking later with Fox News.

“We are going to crack down on this and ban sanctuary cities in Texas,” Abbott said at the time, adding that if Hernandez did not back down, the state would “remove her from office.” He also misrepresented her position, accusing Hernandez of giving harbor to those convicted of offenses like armed robbery; the sheriff’s office has said it will comply with ICE requests for more serious offenses (namely murder and sexual assault.)


Hernandez is still sheriff, but Austin has been singled out by Abbott’s government. After sending a letter asking state agencies to list funds provided to Travis County, the state proceeded to block $1.5 million in grant money to the city, intended for crime victim services, as well as courts and various programs.

Despite the cuts, Austin’s leadership, including Adler, have stood by Hernandez. Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt also soundly condemned Abbott’s actions, noting that targeting sanctuary policies would destroy the Texas economy. But Abbott remained undaunted; now, with the passage of SB4, other cities could be facing similar repercussions.

“This is a dark time for Texas. Xenophobia and racism have won the day,” Moreno said, emphasizing the role “white men” had played in passing SB4. She said that there would be a response at the ballot box, one that would directly impact Texas Republicans.

Local law enforcement also expressed concern. Prior to the law’s passage, Austin’s interim police chief, Brian Manly, spoke about his qualms with SB4 while ultimately agreeing to support it if signed.

“To have this [immigration status] be a question that is asked during a detention is not something that I support,” said Manly at the time.

Austin isn’t the only city where SB4 has gone over poorly. Police chiefs from several major Texas cities all advised against the law, and many have come out against it. In an open letter published by the Dallas Morning News, police chiefs from Dallas, Houston, Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth and San Antonio, as well as the Texas Police Chiefs Association, slammed the state’s efforts.


“We officers work extremely hard to build and maintain trust, communication, and stronger relationships with minority communities through community based policing and outreach programs,” the letter reads. “Broad rules, such as those imposed by SB 4, that push local law enforcement to take a more active role in immigration enforcement will further strain the relationship between local law enforcement and these diverse communities.”

The letter went on to argue that the bill would breed distrust, and discourage documented immigrants from seeking help from law enforcement. Ultimately, it concluded, “[t]his legislation is bad for Texas and will make our communities more dangerous for all.”