Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the City of San Antonio for allegedly violating the so-called anti-"sanctuary cities" law. Credit: Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Texas is suing the City of San Antonio for an alleged violation of the State’s new anti-“sanctuary cities” law, in what appears to be the first legal challenge under the controversial statute.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Travis County District Court, centers on a December 2017 incident when San Antonio police discovered a trailer carrying 12 individuals from Guatemala who were suspected of being undocumented. The city’s police department charged the driver, but released the migrants without involving federal immigration authorities, as the new law requires, according to the State’s lawsuit.

The city’s police department policy states that officers will not refer individuals to Immigration and Customs and Enforcement unless they have a federal deportation warrant. That policy, the Texas lawsuit claims, “prohibits and materially limits the enforcement of immigration laws.”

The lawsuit seeks hefty civil fees from the City, including a $25,500 penalty for nearly every day that its immigration procedures violated state law. The law went into effect Sept. 1, 2017 – meaning those fees could amount so some $11.6 million.

The lawsuit claims that San Antonio Police Chief William McManus “personally called an immigration attorney from an advocacy organization” and released the individuals without running background checks.

“Unfortunately, some municipalities, such as San Antonio, put the safety of police officers and the public at risk by defying state law,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a news release.

City Attorney Andy Segovia took issue with Paxton’s characterization of events, saying the attorney general was clearly “aimed at furthering a political agenda.”

“While we need time to review the complaint, we are fully confident that neither the city nor Chief McManus violated the applicable provisions of [the law],” Segovia said in a statement. “The city has a long history of cooperating with federal authorities and we will continue to do so. The city’s process for handling human smuggling/trafficking incidents was created in coordination with the federal government, and federal officials have not taken issue with our handling of immigration issues.”

Added Mayor Ron Nirenberg: ““The city’s policy has always been to follow local, state and federal laws.”

Paxton’s office has asked the court to issue an injunction requiring the city to comply with the new law, as well as assess civil penalties against the city, police department and McManus. The mayor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Senate Bill 4, known as an anti-“sanctuary cities” law, allows law enforcement to ask for the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. After Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in May 2017, several Texas cities – including San Antonio, Houston and El Paso County – sued to stop the law. A federal appeals court upheld the majority of the law in a March 2018 ruling.

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Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

Emma Platoff covers the law and its intersections with politics for the Texas Tribune, where she started as a fellow in 2017. A graduate of Yale University, Emma is the former managing editor of the Yale...