After a federal appeals court largely upheld the Texas ban on so-called sanctuary cities, Austin City Councilman Gregorio Casar and other city leaders quickly realized they had to get creative in order to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Texas Senate Bill 4, commonly referred to as the “show me your papers” law, allows police officers to check immigration status of those they arrest. The law has faced several legal challenges, but remains in effect.
“We recognized that we need to go beyond the normal idea of a sanctuary city in Texas,” Casar says.
In Austin, this has emerged in a set of recent city council resolutions that address racial disparities in law enforcement arrests and that target the way police officers interact with the immigrant community.
Specifically, Austin City Council in mid-June gave unanimous approval for the city manager to work with Austin police to end what’s referred to as discretionary arrests, which occur when an officer decides to arrest a person for an offense that could have been handled by issuing a citation. The other policy calls for police officers to make sure that, if they ask anyone about their immigration status, they also inform them of their have a constitutional right to refuse to answer the question.
This pair of resolutions has designated Austin as a “Freedom City,” which the American Civil Liberties Union describes as cities that not only push back against the Trump Administration’s deportation policies, but also take steps to protect others who may be unjustly targeted by the administration’s policies.
In Austin, this approach is an intersectional one that blends the concerns of organizers advocating for immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter, Casar said.
“This is really part of a national push to go beyond the sanctuary cities concept … (It) includes people that are part of the immigrant rights movement and the movement for black lives coming together against criminal justice reform,” Casar says.
Across Texas, the Freedom City movement is picking up steam as Dallas city officials are exploring a similar approach. El Paso has also reportedly been looking into these policies.
Sarah Johnson, director for Local Progress — a national network of elected officials — says she is seeing momentum for these kind of policies.
“There is an interest from all of our members in Texas and in other states across the country in really pursuing the strongest possible policies to protect immigrants at this time,” Johnson says.
Senate Bill 4, even before it took effect, has already negatively impacted the quality of life of immigrants across the state, officials say.
“[Dallas residents] are frightened out of their minds,” says Dallas Councilman Philip Kingston who is exploring similar policies in his city. “We can show that domestic violence complaints are way down. We can show that overall calls to police are down.”
“We have a definite reduction in the reporting of crime and the cooperation with police,” he says.
Sophie Torres, with the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said this heightened fear of law enforcement has impacted the regular day-to-day routines of immigrants in Texas.
“It’s that fear that Senate Bill 4 has brought on into the undocumented community that has affected the way they interact in the economy,” Torres says.
Under Senate Bill 4, it was estimated that Texas was expected to lose about $220 million in state and local taxes and roughly $5 billion in gross domestic product, according to data compiled by the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, a group made up of dozens of state-based immigrant and civil rights groups.
“They (immigrants) don’t want to be out as much,” Torres says. “They don’t want to go out to their local restaurant, convenience stores … because there is this heightened security and concern that if they do, they might get stopped. They might get asked for their papers.”
Since 2017, Casar has been part of an organizing effort to ensure a statewide legal challenge against the law. Although a federal appeals court in March largely upheld the law, Casar said the court process taught him cities still have a say over how local police communicate with immigrants.
“While the state acknowledged that police officers have to be allowed to say, ‘show me your papers,’ the state of Texas conceded that police officers cannot arrest someone for refusing proof of citizenship,” Casar says.
“There were openings created by those legal proceedings to allow us to put together a package like this,” he says.
And, while the court proceedings were in motion, Casar says the city was also “part of a broader conversation about police reform and criminal justice.”
In 2017, black and Latino residents in Austin made up about 75 percent of those discretionary arrested for driving with an invalid license, despite comprising less than 45 percent of the city’s population, according to data presented by the city.
Next City reached out to Austin police for comment but did not hear back. However, Ken Casaday, who heads the Austin Police Association, told the Los Angeles Times that although the police union was in support of reducing arrests, misleading data was presented to gather support for the resolutions.
To Casar, these resolutions were a way to address police reform and deportation in one package.
“Oftentimes those unnecessary arrests and non-violent misdemeanors could result with somebody winding up in the jail and being deported,” Casar says.
Casar said both policies should be fully implemented by Sept. 1. In Dallas, Kingston expects such resolutions to be presented to the council toward the beginning of fall.
The way Kingston sees it, the policy targeting police interaction with immigrants, “is a last ditch attempt to protect the rights of people who are here either seeking asylum, or working toward a long-term permanent residency.”
Alejandra Molina is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow for 2018-2019. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race, and religion. In her decade-long career, she's reported how gentrification has affected downtown Santa Ana in Orange County, followed up how violent shootings have affected families and neighborhoods, and reported how President Donald Trump has impacted undocumented communities in the Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The Mercury News in San Jose. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of La Verne, where she taught an introductory journalism course as an adjunct professor.