Bexar County has joined the fight against Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law.
In their biweekly meeting Tuesday, three County commissioners and Judge Nelson Wolff voted to join the City of San Antonio in its lawsuit against the State of Texas in an effort to stop the controversial SB 4.
The law, slated to go into effect on Sept. 1, would allow police officers to question the immigration status of those they detain, even if they’re not lawfully arrested. Constables, police chiefs, and other law enforcement officials who do not comply or cooperate with federal immigration authorities would be subject to a Class A misdemeanor or removal from office.
Other plaintiffs on the City’s lawsuit include Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and the nonprofit organizations Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, Workers Defense Project, and La Unión Del Pueblo Entero. Unlike the majority of City Council members, Mayor Ivy Taylor objected to pursuing the litigation, the second instance in the past three months in which she has sided against City staff. Outgoing Councilmen Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10) also opposed the lawsuit, which Council had discussed on May 25 in executive session, a meeting closed to the public.
Judge Wolff said he received a text message from Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who was visiting his daughter in China and missed Tuesday’s meeting, saying he did not support joining the lawsuit at this time. Kevin, the lone Republican on the Commissioner’s Court, did, however, support Bexar County’s resolution against SB 4 that commissioners signed in May.
At the beginning of the meeting, Edward Schweninger, Civil Division chief for the District Attorney’s office, said he would come back to commissioners within 30 days with an official recommendation from District Attorney Nico LaHood on whether to join the lawsuit. During that time period, LaHood and his office would do more research on the legal issues surrounding SB 4 and lawsuits contesting its constitutionality, Schweninger said.
But commissioners said the County needs to act now.
“I think we need to get on board and send a message,” said Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez (Pct. 1).
Many people in his precinct and the majority of Bexar County residents are Hispanic, he said, and such a law would lead to racial profiling. That same concern was shared by Judge Wolff, Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2), and Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).
“Not every dark-looking Hispanic [person] is illegal here,” Rodriguez said.
Commissioners also said that the law lacks clarity in numerous areas, and several clauses – including the one that says law enforcement officials who choose not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities can be punished – are unconstitutional.
“There are politicians who will throw red meat on the table just to instigate conflict and just to instigate these kinds of acrimonious discussions,” Calvert said. “This is really an unnecessary debate because the Supreme Court will certainly rule a number of these clauses unconstitutional.”
Not only is SB 4 “not needed, but it [is] cynical as hell,” Elizondo said, dispelling rhetoric that says undocumented people are in the United States in bad faith. Elizondo, who was born in San Antonio, volunteered to serve his country in the U.S. Marine Corps. He said he knows many undocumented Hispanic people who also volunteered to prove their loyalty to the U.S.
“The most cynical thing about [SB 4] is that [it’s a] ‘Show me your papers’ law,” he said. “… Ask a black person what it feels like to be profiled.”
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, whose mother is a Mexican immigrant, reiterated Tuesday that he has “not been in favor of this bill as it was going through the process,” but “we’ve always said we are going to be in compliance with the law in the Sheriff’s Office.
“I can’t just pick and choose what laws I enforce,” he said, though he did say there are serious issues with the law that need to be addressed. Salazar added that enforcing SB 4 would take time and resources away from “real problems” facing Bexar County, such as violent crime, an overpopulated jail, and recruitment concerns.
“For Bexar County, [SB 4] really is not doing anything to address our local needs,” he said.
Enforcing a law like SB 4 would put further stress on already overpopulated jails around the country, Wolff added.
Bexar County is joining two other counties and three municipalities in filing suit in opposition of SB 4.
El Paso County filed a lawsuit in May, and other lawsuits have been filed by Maverick County along the U.S.-Mexico border, the City of Austin, and the City of El Cenizo south of Laredo. Travis County also is considering litigation, said Schweninger, who anticipates all similar lawsuits getting consolidated into one.
Bexar County will officially join the City of San Antonio’s lawsuit in two weeks or so, Schweninger said, as soon as paperwork is completed and the District Attorney’s office completes its research on the best strategies for legal action.
Officials still need to decide who will represent the County in the lawsuit – which could come at a cost to the County depending on who is chosen – and if any elected law enforcement officials such as Salazar or any constables would want to be plaintiffs on the suit.
“Some of them I’m sure do,” Schweninger said, “and some of them probably don’t.”
In its lawsuit, the City is being represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Unlike the County, the City decided to go through with the lawsuit after discussing it in executive session, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. They did not take a vote during the closed meeting, which was meant for Segovia to get council’s “direction” on the issue.
“I have the authority under the [City] Charter to start litigation … I ask the council for direction and that doesn’t mean that they take a vote,” Segovia said. “What it means is we talk about it, what the proposed action is, the pluses and minuses, and if they want further information then we can provide that. If I get clear direction from them, I go ahead [with the lawsuit].”
Judge Wolff did not hide his frustration with SB 4.
“Everybody seems to forget where in the hell they came from. We’re all immigrants in this country, all of us are,” he said. “Except for the Native Americans … we all immigrated here.”
Judge Wolff referenced his own immigrant grandmother, who “was an alien probably for 30, 40 years before she ever got her papers.
“We have 11 million [undocumented immigrants] today that are in the same position my grandmother was [in],” he said. “These people who have been here for decades, they’re law-abiding, they’re paying their taxes, they’re scared to death of someone saying something to them.
“… It’s just so sad to see where we’re headed today and Texas being the leader in this very unfortunate attack.”