San Antonio, Austin join growing lawsuits against draconian Texas immigration bill

Legal challenges argue SB4 is unconstitutional and will put residents in danger.

Georgia Cordova of El Paso, Texas, center, joins other protesters as they take part in a No Ban, No Wall rally to support the rights of immigrants and oppose a border wall and support sanctuary cities at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File
Georgia Cordova of El Paso, Texas, center, joins other protesters as they take part in a No Ban, No Wall rally to support the rights of immigrants and oppose a border wall and support sanctuary cities at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

San Antonio and Austin are the latest cities to sue the state of Texas over a controversial immigration law, poised to be the harshest in the country.

San Antonio’s lawsuit was filed Thursday by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) on behalf of the city and three nonprofits, and argues that SB4, an immigration law targeting “sanctuary cities,” is unconstitutional. Under SB4, law enforcement officials who fail to comply with federal detainer requests could face harsh ramifications — a Class A misdemeanor (punishable by up to either a $4,000 fine and/or a year in prison), a civil penalty of up to $25,500 per day, and, in the case of officials, possible removal from office.

“The constitutional violations in this law are substantial and multiple, and the lawsuits challenging SB4 should prevent its threatened unleashing of arbitrary and inconsistent law enforcement practices,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel. On a press call, Saenz said that other municipalities were likely to file similar suits, though he declined to give names.

Quickly following suit, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced Friday morning that the city would also be challenging SB4. Calling the law a danger to residents, he emphasized the risks SB4 would pose to Austinites, keeping many from seeking police help.

“We want our day in court because for far too long the Texas Legislature has been playing political football with the safety of our city and now we get to move to a different forum,” Adler said. “One of the main impetuses behind the city filing suit is the keen and earnest desire to keep this community safe.”

President Donald Trump’s administration is currently overseeing a nationwide anti-immigration effort, honing in on cities where law enforcement officials decline to detain and turn over undocumented immigrants. But attempts to crack down on “sanctuary cities” have met resistance legally . States like Texas, however, are quickly proving that federal pressure may not be necessary in areas with conservative governments.

Texas technically has no sanctuary cities, but an effort to push back against immigration raids under Barack Obama’s administration has remained lively — something Texas Republicans are unhappy with. Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed SB4 in early May. Despite an estimated 1.2 million undocumented immigrants, the highest number in the United States after California, Abbott’s government has long sought to crack down on immigration.

Activists and numerous organizations have expressed outrage over SB4. Shortly after its signing, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a travel warning for the state of Texas.

“Until we defeat [SB4], everyone traveling in or to Texas needs to be aware of what’s in store for them,” Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said at the time. “The Lone Star State will become a ‘show me your papers’ state, where every interaction with law enforcement can become a citizenship interrogation and potentially an illegal arrest.”

SB4 is set to take effect September 1. Following the law’s signing, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit asking for it to be declared constitutional — an effort to clear any legal hurdles in advance. Texas’ suit singles out Austin in particular, where Sheriff Sally Hernandez has clashed repeatedly with Abbott over immigration issues. But Texas cities and counties are having none of the state’s legal challenge — or the law that inspired it. Prior to the suits from Austin and San Antonio, the city of El Cenizo and Maverick County also challenged the law. Dallas is also likely to file its own objection. El Paso County similarly filed an anti-SB4 challenge two weeks after the law was signed.

“All law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions that opt to stay out of immigration enforcement face stringent civil liability,” the lawsuit reads. “And, persons in Texas, particularly Mexican-Americans, those of Hispanic descent, and immigrants and their families, will be caught in the crossfire.”

Dissent over SB4 has caused acrimony — and physical altercations. During the Texas legislature’s final session last Monday, predominantly Latinx anti-SB4 protesters swarmed the capitol building. Things became even more heated when a Republican state representative, Matt Rinaldi, told a group of Hispanic Democrats he had called ICE officers. Lawmakers began shoving one another, while protesters were pushed outside. Rinaldi did himself no favors — an attorney representing El Paso County’s SB4 lawsuit, Jose Garza, told the Texas Observer that the call will likely be used in court to prove SB4’s discriminatory intent.

“This was a peaceful protest and many were citizens,” said Garza, “and Rinaldi sicced ICE on them because they were brown.”