El Paso County Sues Texas Over Anti-Sanctuary City Law

May 23, 2017

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — El Paso County sued Texas on Monday, bringing a constitutional challenge to the state’s new law that bans sanctuary cities and threatens law-enforcement officers with a year in jail if they refuse to honor “immigration holds.”

Senate Bill 4, signed into law by defendant Gov. Greg Abbott this month, punishes local governments and college campus police units that refuse to comply with detainer requests from immigration officers by Class A misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of up to $25,000 a day.

The law is slated to take effect Sept. 1.

An “immigration hold” is a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that local law enforcement refuse to release a prisoner though there may be no state or local charges pending against him.

El Paso County calls the so-called “Show Me Your Papers Bill” an unprecedented cruel and vague law that is unconstitutional and erodes public safety.

The county, its Sheriff Richard Wiles and the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund sued Texas, Gov. Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. Their federal complaint says SB 4 violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, as well as sections of the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution.

“Racial animus fueled SB 4’s enactment, tainting the entire law with an impermissible legislative purpose,” El Paso County says in the complaint. “The law’s language is unconstitutionally vague, chills policy dissent in violation of the First Amendment and leaves those potentially subject to its mandates without meaningful notice of what acts are forbidden.”

The county says the law invites racial profiling, allowing local law enforcement officers to demand “papers” from virtually any person in Texas at any time.

“History and logic supports that all Texans will not be equally subject to this harassment,” the county says in the complaint.

“Texans of Hispanic heritage and immigrants and their families, particularly those from Mexico, Central America and other Spanish-speaking countries, will be targeted.”

The county says it is impossible to detach SB 4 from the cultural context in which it was passed. “The 2016 election both in Texas and in the United States was riddled with nativist and anti-immigrant appeal,” the county says.

In his campaign, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called immigration an “invasion” of Texas and said immigrants have brought leprosy and other disease with them.

“Without factual data, Patrick blamed immigrants for ‘a rising crime rate, overcrowded schools, an overburdened health-care system, and runaway growth in the state budget,’ and characterized illegal immigrants as ‘terrorists and drug runners,’” El Paso County says in the complaint.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said in a statement Monday that the law particularly affects border communities such as El Paso County, which is more than 80 percent Latino and whose residents already face attacks upon their constitutional rights because of its proximity to Mexico.

Bernal said SB 4 violates the Texas Constitution because it interferes with the county’s ability to exercise discretion in protecting and providing services to its residents.

“It also interferes with the El Paso County Sheriff’s constitutional duty to decide policy in the area of law enforcement, including the operation of the county jail, removing all discretion to make and enforce rules,” Bernal said.

The county asks the court to declare SB 4 unconstitutional, an injunction against its enforcement, and costs and attorney fees.

A 2006 lawsuit alleged that officials in El Paso County were conducting checkpoints to trap and arrest undocumented immigrants. The county settled by agreeing to bar sheriff’s deputies from enforcing immigration law, a policy which the county says may violate SB 4’s mandates.

El Paso County is the second jurisdiction to sue the state over SB 4 since Abbott signed the bill into law this month.

El Cenizo, pop. 3,300, a border town in Webb County south of Laredo, and Maverick County, just north of Laredo, sued the same defendants two weeks ago, on virtually identical claims.

In anticipation of such lawsuits, Texas filed a preemptive lawsuit the day after Abbott signed the bill into law, asking a federal judge to declare SB 4 constitutional.

Texas’s lawsuit was specifically aimed at Travis County, home of the state capital, and its Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who was one of many law enforcement officers who opposed SB 4, saying it would make her job more difficult. Texas also sued the City of Austin, its mayor, City Council, city manager, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Abbott has already withheld $1.5 million in state grants for Travis County to punish the sheriff for her stand on immigration detainers.

On Thursday, the Austin City Council voted 10 to 1 to also challenge SB 4 in court.

In an op-ed in The New York Times last week, Austin City Councilman Gregorio Cesar said that the City Council’s vote to challenge the state in court affirms that the police department’s mission is to enforce criminal laws, not immigration enforcement.

“This provision resembles those in laws passed in Arizona and Alabama in recent years, both of which inspired national scorn and were partially struck down when challenged in court,” Cesar wrote in the Times.

Cesar was arrested by Texas State Troopers this month when he refused to leave Abbot’s office during a protest against SB 4.

“The racism and fear that play such outsize roles in support for this type of legislation, and in contemporary politics more broadly, must be confronted head-on,” Cesar wrote.