Skip to content Skip to footer

Immigrant Communities Battle New Anti-Sanctuary-City Bills in Red States

Republican legislatures are moving to withhold funds from cities that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities.

Protesters chant in opposition to Senate Bill 4 at the Texas Capitol rotunda in Austin.

Emboldened by President Trump’s executive order withholding federal funds from “sanctuary” jurisdictions, Republican-dominated state legislatures are seeking to deny their own state funds to counties or cities refusing to comply with federal immigration authorities.

Several states, including Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Idaho and Pennsylvania have introduced measures that would require police agencies to hold anyone in custody until U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) can determine if they should be deported, or potentially lose state funding.

Some states are going even farther than that.

In Ohio, state lawmakers introduced a bill that would hold local officials accountable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in the officials’ sanctuary jurisdictions. Legislators in Colorado have introduced legislation that would let victims of particular crimes committed by undocumented immigrants sue the politicians who supported a sanctuary designation. Alaska and Maine are now reportedly considering similar measures to the Colorado proposal.

But the underlying assumptions the bills rely on — that immigrants are inherently criminal — are based on myths. Research has shown that undocumented immigrants do not commit disproportionate amount of crime, and that crime is not generally higher in sanctuary jurisdictions. In fact, researchers who analyzed census data spanning from 1970 to 2010 for 200 randomly-selected metropolitan areas found that, “for murder, robbery, burglary and larceny, as immigration increased, crime decreased, on average, in American metropolitan areas.”

There is no strict, legal definition of a sanctuary jurisdiction, whether at the city, county or state level. The entire states of California, Connecticut, New Mexico and Colorado and hundreds of other jurisdictions at the city and country level label themselves sanctuaries. The term is most often used to describe jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal immigration authorities’ requests to keep suspected undocumented immigrants in jail even after their release date so that they can determine whether the person should be deported. These nonbinding requests are known as “detainers.”

Just as Republican-dominated state legislatures are introducing anti-sanctuary-city legislation, dozens of Democratic-leaning states and cities are considering legislation to take steps like setting up legal defense funds for immigrants swept up in ICE raids. Some Democratic governors and mayors are also taking steps to mitigate Trump’s executive orders. For example, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told state agencies to specifically avoid inquiring about the immigration status of individuals they work with or detain.

But with Republicans dominating 25 state legislatures and 33 governorships, state-level anti-immigrant bills have put immigrant rights advocates on the defensive. They are doing all they can to hold the line in the face of intensifying threats: ICE swept up more than 680 people in raids last week, representing what many advocates say is a radical shift under President Trump to deport people who were previously considered a lower priority for removal under President Obama.

Texas Republicans Fast Track Senate Bill 4

The Texas Senate passed an anti-sanctuary-city measure this month that would block state funding to cities in which police officials disregard federal immigration detainers. The bill, Senate Bill 4, would also allow criminal charges to be brought against city or county officials who do not comply with federal immigration law, and if convicted, face removal from office.

The bill has been a priority for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose public feud with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over her decision not to comply with ICE detainers has been in the spotlight after the governor slashed more than $2 million in funding to Travis County in retribution. The bill also aims to cut off funds to one of the state’s largest sanctuaries — Austin — as well as to Texas colleges that designate themselves sanctuary campuses.

A House version of the measure, House bill 889, has been filed, but neither version of the bill has been referred to a committee in the lower chamber.

Immigrant communities from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, College Station, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere across the state gave hundreds of testimonies in opposition to the bill during a hearing in the Senate Committee on State Affairs, speaking into the early hours on the morning of February 3. The youth-led immigrant rights organization United We Dream (UWD) and other advocacy groups said they delivered more than 3,200 signed petitions in opposition.

“This bill is a direct attack on Brown and Black immigrant folks who are part of this state and who have made their lives here for so many years.”

“With SB4 being prioritized and sped along so quickly, we definitely feel that some of these conservative politicians are being emboldened by the fact that on the national level, Trump has already laid out executive orders that pretty much lay down the groundwork for any non-U.S. citizen to be criminalized and put into a deportation pipeline,” Austin resident Sheridan Aguirre, who is communications coordinator at UWD and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), told Truthout. “As immigrants who would be directly impacted by this bill, we want to be very clear that this bill should not exist, that this bill is a direct attack on Brown and Black immigrant folks who are part of this state and who have made their lives here for so many years.”

The bill moves into the House on the heels of last week’s ICE raids that swept up more than 680 people across more than 11 states, including a DACA recipient (even though Trump has not taken specific action to dismantle DACA thus far). In Austin, ICE detained between 60-70 people, according to organizers with the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership. The enforcement actions prompted hundreds of protesters to take the streets in response.

“Two years ago, during the last legislative session, [SB 4] was called Senate Bill 185 by the same [state] senator, Charles Perry, and he wasn’t able to get it out of the Senate. It only went to a hearing and died in committee, and that’s because again, a lot of people showed up to testify against the bill,” said Karla Perez, who is the state-level coordinator for UWD’s UndocuTexas campaign. “Now, two years later, we see Texas Republicans in the Senate emboldened by Donald Trump, and are carrying out his agenda of mass deportation and xenophobia in our state.”

If SB 4 or other state-level anti-sanctuary-cities bills become law, cities and counties that adopt sanctuary policies could be facing a twofold threat from both their state and the Trump administration, as one of the president’s January 25 executive orders would rescind federal grants to sanctuary jurisdictions.

According to internal communications obtained by The Intercept, the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security are already moving forward with aspects of Trump’s January 25 executive orders aimed at strengthening the nation’s domestic immigration enforcement structures, including calling for construction of new immigrant jails along the southern border. Still, the fate of Trump’s anti-sanctuary executive order is still unclear: San Francisco was the first to file a legal challenge against the order, and more cities are expected to follow suit.

But both the Trump administration and state-level Republicans pushing anti-sanctuary-cities measures are facing pushback from an unlikely source: police agencies.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of senior law enforcement executives from the nation’s largest cities, has opposed measures that would punish sanctuary jurisdictions financially for failing to comply with federal immigration authorities since at least 2013. They also oppose efforts that would deputize state and local law police as immigration authorities.

In Texas, Travis County Sheriff Sally Yates’s opposition to SB 4 is echoed by police chiefs from the state’s largest cities, including Houston, San Antonio and Austin. They have said that the bill would turn officers in de facto ICE agents, amplifying fear in immigrant communities and making undocumented immigrants less likely to report crimes for fear of deportation.

The most vulnerable immigrant communities in Texas already live with a fear of the police, especially those who live in the low-income border areas of the state such as the Rio Grande Valley.

John-Michael Torres, who is communications coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE, the community union founded by labor activist César Chavez), told Truthout that, if passed, SB 4 could have profound effects on the poorest immigrant communities he works with. LUPE specializes in supporting the Rio Grande Valley’s unincorporated neighborhoods that often lack basic infrastructure and services, known colloquially as “colonias.”

“If this bill were to pass than the work that we’ve been doing for the past 10-plus years would just be instantly disintegrated.”

“Part of creating safe spaces, creating a feeling of community and safety in these neighborhoods, involves working closely with the sheriffs’ departments and community members so that they are able to build networks and community-watch programs, and other programs such as bringing street lights to their neighborhoods — building a sense that the community can work with local law enforcement to take care of the needs that they have in terms of reporting crime,” Torres said. “If this bill were to pass than the work that we’ve been doing for the past 10-plus years would just be instantly disintegrated.”

The work LUPE has been doing to support the Rio Grande Valley’s colonias was plenty difficult even before President Trump’s election and the introduction of SB 4, because of the community’s level of fear around immigration enforcement, Torres said. In an area that has local, county, state and federal law enforcement presence, that fear is amplified and justifiably so.

“If [these police agencies] work together to funnel immigrants into the deportation system, then Trump doesn’t need any more of a deportation force because he’s already got it laid out for him,” Torres says.

Other immigrant organizers like Rolando Almaraz, a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union who lives in Brownsville, Texas, told Truthout that even before President Trump’s election, immigrant communities were understandably worried about police contact. For example, Almaraz notes, in recent months there has been a noticeable uptick in the presence of state Highway Patrol policing the border in his area.

Immigrants Look to Deportation Defense Tactics

Border communities as well as immigrant communities throughout the U.S. are preparing for worst-case scenarios. LUPE has been canvassing the colonias to have neighborhoods sign up for text alerts from the organization about upcoming actions and information sessions.

Almaraz said organizers in his area are planning to hold teach-ins to provide legal advice to help immigrant parents protect their custody rights and property, as well as develop contingency plans in case they are deported.

Elsewhere across the country, immigrant rights activists are organizing deportation defense tools, including hotlines that allow people to report ICE activity in their areas. One of the most widely used is UWD’s “MigraWatch” hotline that was launched during the Obama administration’s raids targeting primarily mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America last year.

According to Ambar Pinto, who is the deportation defense hotline manager at UWD, when someone calls the hotline, a UWD volunteer responds and tries to collect as much information about the sighting as possible, including asking for any visual evidence collected by the witness. If possible, UWD will send out their local affiliates in the area to verify the existence of the activity.

“We do that with the teams we have across the nation. They kind of go out there, take pictures, figure out what’s going on, and then we make an alert on social media. ‘This is actually verified. It’s happening. Be cautious.’ And we start blasting Know Your Rights [information] on our social media, and we email about a specific locality,” Pinto told Truthout.

The hotline also fields calls after the point at which someone is detained by ICE, asking the relative or friend calling to report the detention a set of questions to verify the account, and then working to obtain legal aid for the detained person.

The hotline was very active during last week’s ICE raids, and Pinto told Truthout the hotline has seen increased traffic since President Trump’s inauguration. While the hotline usually averages about 30 to 50 calls a month; in February so far, it has received more than 420 calls, according to Pinto.

She says UWD is having discussions about increasing the number of volunteers staffing the hotline and expanding it into a 24-hour service (it currently runs from 7 am to 9 pm), as well as including volunteers who can speak additional languages to handle the increased traffic.

Activists are also defending against deportation even in its final stages. In Phoenix, Arizona, organizers made headlines after putting their bodies on the line to physically block the deportation van carrying Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who was deported and separated from her family after going to her yearly check-in with ICE.

It was not the first time immigrant rights organizers there took nonviolent direct action of this kind. In previous years, they have held sit-ins in front of a deportation buses, and chased down vans carrying deportees. They have also organized “Defense Committees” across the state that work to delay or stop deportation by intervening in the process at different phases, and more recently have placed a focus on minimizing contact with police as much as possible under the Trump administration.

“Going forward, what [these bills, raids and deportations] mean for the immigrant community is really a call to action for people to resist these efforts, said UWD’s Perez. “What that means is whether you do community organizing or try to work with your elected officials, whether you are holding Know Your Rights information sessions, … we definitely need to do more of that now.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $46,000 in the next 8 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.