‘Sanctuary cities’ state bill already affecting Austin

Senate Bill 4, colloquially known as the “sanctuary cities” bill, will become effective Sept. 1, but those close to Austin’s immigrant community say they already see effects of the bill taking shape.

The bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed May 7, requires jails to honor all federal immigration detainer requests and ensures the right of any law-
enforcement officer to inquire about immigration status in the midst of a legal detainment.

Efforts to stop the bill, including two undecided federal court lawsuit hearings and several protests and demonstrations, are already in the rear view mirror.

Since February, SAFE Alliance—an Austin-based organization that helps survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and exploitation—has seen a decrease in desire by its mostly Hispanic clients to report crimes to police, said Coni Stogner, vice president of prevention and community services.

“For someone who might be experiencing sexual abuse or domestic violence, there’s already a lot of barriers to coming forward and reporting that,” Stogner said. “But when you have laws like this in place, you’re just adding a much larger barrier because there is such a fear of deportation.”

‘Fear and uncertainty’

American Gateways, an Austin-based organization that provides immigration assistance to undocumented persons, has been overwhelmed with requests for services. Robert Painter, director of pro bono programs and communications, said family separation is the most consistent concern the agency hears from clients.

In his statement issued prior to SB 4’s federal court hearing June 26, Reyna Torres Mendivil, consulate general of Mexico in San Antonio, said 11 Mexican Consulate offices in Texas—one of which is in Austin—handled 1,000 civil and family law-related cases between January and May, up from 690 during the same time last year.

Torres Mendivil said there was a 678 percent year-over-year increase in May and June in calls from Mexican nationals in Texas inquiring about protections offered by the consulate.

“This increase … is believed to be caused by fear and uncertainty in the community sparked by the implementation of SB 4,” Torres Mendivil said.

Enforcing the law

The law threatens to strip state public safety funding, remove or jail officials, and fine any city or local entity that endorses sanctuary cities policies that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy states the department, which runs the county jail system, would only honor detainer requests for those charged with any four violent crimes: murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

From Feb. 1—when the sheriff’s policy went into effect—to June 10, the sheriff’s department honored 139 requests and denied 186. Denying requests cost the county $1.5 million in public safety grants. According to the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, Travis and Dallas counties are the only two counties in Texas that do not honor all federal detainer requests.

A person flagged with a detainer request is only released to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after dealing with the charges that landed him or her in custody, such as making bail, said Kristen Dark, spokesperson for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. When a person is cleared for release, Dark said a detainer request allows the jail to hold him or her for up to 48 extra hours to allow ICE time to pick him or her up.

Dark said the additional detainment has always been voluntary unless ICE presented a warrant, a process often reserved for suspects of major crimes. Federal courts in Illinois and Texas recently ruled holding a person under a warrantless ICE detainer request after he or she is cleared for release is unconstitutional.

Immigration inquiries

In its 2010 decision on Arizona’s immigration law, the U.S. Supreme Court maintained that “as a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the United States.” Although it is unconstitutional to arrest or stop a person based solely on immigration status, the court said law enforcement retains the right of discretion to ask the immigration status of any legally detained person.

SB 4 prohibits local entities from passing policies that discourage a law-enforcement officer from making such an inquiry. Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain of the Austin Police Department said eliminating policies that discourage officers from that inquiry put the trust built between police and the immigrant population at risk.

“Anytime we put ourselves in a position to make crime victims and witnesses to crimes more reluctant to talk to the police and cooperate with an investigation, we make the community as a whole less safe,” McIlvain said. “Our officers [can’t go] out and … arrest anybody solely because of their immigration status.”

Jackson County Sheriff AJ Louderback, president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas—an organization that strongly supports the law—applauded the bill. He said it was wrong for a local entity to have the ability to restrict the right of inquiry given to law-enforcement officers by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP Commission, said he does not expect officers to waste time questioning non-criminals.

“If an illegal immigrant commits a crime, they’re going to run that through the system [and obey any ICE detainer request],” Mackowiak said.
By Christopher Neely

Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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