Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the city and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus of violating the sanctuary cities law in two human trafficking cases in 2017.
Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the city and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus of violating the sanctuary cities law in a pair of lawsuits stemming from a 2017 human trafficking incident. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio and the Texas Attorney General’s Office have settled two lawsuits that stem from a human trafficking incident in 2017.

The city will pay the state $300,000, but admits no fault or violation of any law, including the so-called “sanctuary cities” law, as part of the settlement.

In December 2017, San Antonio police caught a man smuggling 12 suspected undocumented immigrants in the back of a trailer. Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the city and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus of violating the sanctuary cities law, which requires local entities to cooperate with federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration laws, after the 12 people were released instead of detained for federal immigration officials.

The settlement “ends an unnecessary and political lawsuit … one that the city still believes that we would have won, but at continued expense to the city and the taxpayers,” City Manager Erik Walsh told reporters after City Council approved the settlement agreement on Thursday.

The city has already spent a combined $6.38 million on the two cases since the Attorney General’s Office launched its investigation in early 2018, said City Attorney Andy Segovia. That figure does not include the $300,000 settlement.

Segovia estimated the three-week trial, which was scheduled to start March 28, would have cost the city $500,000 — and even if the city won, it would likely face a lengthy appeals process.

The state had sought an award of attorneys’ fees and daily penalties exceeding $150 million as the state was essentially fining the city $25,000 per day. The second lawsuit sought the firing of McManus.

The state approached the city before the trial start date to propose a settlement, Segovia said. Dismissal of the cases is pending final review from a district judge and should come in the next 30 to 60 days.

“Frankly, they were misinterpreting language in the [police] manual that talked about referral to federal authorities,” Segovia said. The city argued that language does not prohibit police officers from talking to or cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The police department did not have the authority to detain the 12 people in the trailer, Segovia said, but the driver was arrested.

A city memo regarding the settlement says the U.S. Department of Homeland Security failed to respond “in a timely manner or with sufficient resources to transport or process the individuals in the trailer for possible violations of federal immigration law.”

Those in the trailer were connected with several nonprofit agencies that advocate for immigrants, a protocol that was established after 10 people died in a tractor-trailer left in a Walmart parking lot earlier that year.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to clarify in SAPD written policies that the department cooperates with federal immigration authorities — which it has and will continue to do, Walsh said.

“We remain a compassionate city,” he said. “This changes nothing from us from an operational standpoint at the police department.”

If the incident occurred today, it would be handled in the exact same way, Segovia said.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.

In May 2017, San Antonio joined other cities and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in a lawsuit to block Senate Bill 4, known as the sanctuary cities law.

That fight continues in the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Segovia said, but there has been little recent activity. “Obviously, the focus has been on trying to resolve this case. … But that case is still active and we intend to continue to pursue it.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org