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Luis Roberto Vera, the San Antonio lawyer who filed the first lawsuit against the “sanctuary cities” law on behalf of the border town of El Cenizo in May, received the Mexican government’s highest award Wednesday.
The ceremony took place during the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)’s 88th National Convention at the Henry B. González Convention Center, amid a legal battle aimed at blocking SB 4 taking shape in San Antonio. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia has yet to rule on a preliminary injunction, which would stop the measure from taking effect on Sept 1. LULAC, as well as the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The Mexican government’s Ohtli award honors exceptional leaders who have contributed to the wellbeing, prosperity, and empowerment of Mexican communities abroad and opened pathways for others. Established 20 years ago, the Ohtli award has become an important symbol of the ties between the government of Mexico and Mexican and Hispanic communities abroad.
“[SB 4] is the harshest, modern-day violation of human rights against people of Mexican and Hispanic origin,” said Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil, the Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio. “This award is a true marker of [Vera’s] character and what [he] has done for the Latino community. Despite the negative climate that we are currently facing, Hispanics have and will continue persevering and succeeding.”
SB 4 allows local law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status not only during arrest, but also during detainment. It punishes local officials who do not cooperate with immigration authorities or honor detainers, which are formal requests from federal immigration authorities to hold non-citizen inmates at local jails.
Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that SB 4 was created to promote public safety.
Lawyers for the State and the U.S. Department of Justice maintain that the “moderate law” does not require police officers to request immigration papers, but rather establishes a standard of cooperation with immigration officers.
“This law would better be [called] a law for badge vigilantes, because SB 4 would permit thousands of police officers and sheriffs deputies across the state of Texas to decide on their own whether and how to enforce immigration laws without any guidance or restriction from usual leaders we count on to lead law enforcement,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing the City in the suit.
Vera, 61, was born and raised in San Antonio and serves as LULAC’s general counsel, working for more than 20 years on combating discriminatory practices against Hispanic and black people in Texas and other states. He holds an undergraduate and graduate degree in political science from St. Mary’s University and a law degree from the Western New England University School of Law.
“Donald Trump and the governor of Texas have declared war on Latinos, on la gente mexicana …,” Vera said as he accepted the award. “I am grateful to those who stand with us. I am so honored that the government of Mexico has bestowed this honor on me, but it’s not me, it is so many people who stand with me on all these cases. Our fight will continue, we will rise up as a people, we will unite, and we will resist.”
Vera thanked his mother, who came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant in her teen years.
“The biggest honor for me is that my mother, who came here at the age of 14 as an undocumented traveler, is here with me today,” Vera said as he held back tears and the audience applauded. “Mami … thanks for the life you gave me.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg did not attend the awards ceremony, but his Senior Policy Advisor and Director of Community Engagement Juany Torres presented Vera with a certificate of recognition in honor of his Ohtli award.
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio), who attended the Wednesday luncheon and awards ceremony, said LULAC choosing San Antonio as the venue for its convention was indicative of current events.
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“There [are] so many big issues for the Latino and Hispanic community at stake this year – everything from SB 4 in Texas to dealing with President Trump’s mass deportation program to severing cuts to education and health care that have been proposed by the president,” Castro said. “All of these things would have a significant impact on the Hispanic community in Texas and the United States.”
Castro called San Antonio “the birthplace” of major civil rights organizations within the Hispanic community and told the audience, “You have come to the right town at the right time to strategize in the coming months and the coming years … We are at a time of great fronts and pain for the Latino community in the United States. We’re going to organize because we’ve had enough.”
LULAC was founded in 1929 in Corpus Christi with the active participation of San Antonians and other South Texas activists battling discrimination and inequality. The convention will host more than 250 speakers and more than 75 workshops and panels through Saturday. Topics include SB 4, other issues surrounding immigration, activism, health care, career development, and other challenges the Latino community currently faces.
For the full schedule, click here.