Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 70th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation about undocumented families seeking relief from Hurricane Harvey, the ongoing fight against an anti-immigrant bill in Texas, DACA and more with Greg Casar, a city councilman in Austin representing District 4.
Sarah Jaffe: I wanted to briefly start off by talking about Hurricane Harvey and the outlook for Texas. What is going on in the state in terms of recovery efforts?
Greg Casar: The devastation in Houston has been tragic and enormous. We are still learning about the scale. I grew up in Houston. Everybody knows someone or multiple folks that were affected by the floods, and we are still mourning the deaths here in Austin. A lot of folks are stepping up. Many people have chartered their own buses to bring people here from the Gulf Coast, have gotten their own rafts and boats to go and save people themselves. The City of Austin has sent first responders and medics and aid. We just signed a lease for a mega shelter to house likely about 2,000 people here in the coming days that are being evacuated across the state.
It has been a very hard time for folks here in Texas, but at the same time, we have all had a chance to also recognize each other’s collective humanity, and everyday Texans have been helping strangers, have been opening up their homes and their hearts and their wallets. There has been really inspirational collective action even in the devastation.
Also, I think it is really important to note, since we are talking about immigration and immigrants, that Houston is one of the largest homes to undocumented folks in the country. It is, by many counts, the most diverse city in America, and there are many undocumented people who will not be eligible for any FEMA direct cash assistance because our government has continued to label folks as criminal, as undocumented, instead of recognizing their collective humanity….
Yes, one of the things that people commented on a lot was the question of whether immigration checkpoints were still going to be in effect while people were trying to evacuate ahead of the storm.
Yes, and there were back-and-forth answers about that. That, I am sure, caused more suffering and damage to those undocumented families. I was actually at a shelter here in Austin, one of our smaller shelters. It was the night of the 28th, Monday. I heard firsthand from folks what is becoming common knowledge across the state, which is that many families that are evacuating the coast are scared of coming to our government shelters. They are scared that their immigration status might be checked and that they will be targeted in their moment of need. Austin Police are not checking immigration status at our shelters, but I understand why people are afraid. Greg Abbott and Donald Trump have created that fear, and they have consistently imposed that fear on immigrants in our community.
Looking forward, it is obviously too early to say what the rebuilding is going to look like, but how do people who care keep an eye on the process and make sure that people who may not be US citizens still have access to help and rebuilding?
I hope that the communities in Port Arthur and Rockport and Houston can be really involved in the decisions being made by their governments in their communities. Here in Austin, when we had some massive flooding, there was additional city supplemental support, city funding and city debt that was issued to help with our own flooding issues in the past. Oftentimes, the government guidelines for city funding were just mirrored off of federal guidelines, which would have excluded undocumented folks from lots of assistance. We were able, as a city, to rewrite those because we don’t have to follow the same kinds of rules the federal government sets. We can set our own rules.
I think that is going to be really important in these communities that are so diverse. There should be no question that the folks that are going to rebuild cities like Houston are largely going to be undocumented workers. There is study after study showing that at least half of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented. That is the number of people that are willing to report, to a researcher, their immigration status. Likely, the numbers are significantly higher.
And if we know anything from what happened in Katrina and elsewhere, especially with a conservative administration in the White House, they are going to be looking for the cheapest labor they can possibly find.
We are also here to talk about something slightly less depressing, although it is an ongoing fight: Tell us about the struggles on the latest anti-immigrant bill in Texas.
So, just two days ago, Federal Judge Garcia declared that the major provisions of the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 are unconstitutional and unlawful and are blocked from going into effect. Thanks to that court ruling, that discriminatory law has been stopped in its tracks. I am really grateful not just for the judge’s ruling, but most importantly for the enormous statewide organizing effort that was led by immigrant organizers themselves to fight Senate Bill 4 every step of the way, from the legislature to our city halls where the movement pushed city council after city council in every major metropolitan area in the state to sue; in small towns, be they bedroom communities, be they college towns like San Marcos or be they cities on the border, all joined together to successfully block all the most substantial provisions of the law.
That ruling has brought some real relief to everyday families. Just on Wednesday morning, I was receiving phone calls and talking to constituents that were asking for access to a lawyer or asking if they need to find a way to sell their house in the month of September because if they got deported would they get the chance to sell their house? Then, Wednesday night folks were in tears and celebrating. That brings so much needed relief, but I think much more importantly, it is a glimmer of hope about what collective action can do even in the State of Texas and how grassroots organizations can successfully oppose the anti-immigrant agenda of some of the most powerful people in the state.
Tell us a little bit more about what this law would have done were it able to go forward.
I’d say that there are three most critical parts of the law. The first one is that it would have mandated that Texas sheriffs honor all federal deportation requests, called detainer requests, which essentially hold immigrant people in jail because they are immigrants for longer than they should be held in jail so that they can be deported. That provision was blocked and that was a critical provision in the law. That allows sheriffs, like our sheriff here in Travis County, which covers Austin, to continue her policy of not unconstitutionally holding people. And it opens up the opportunities for organizers to organize in more than 200 other Texas counties to get those counties to follow that lead, because those sheriffs have oftentimes held up the state as an excuse for the reason why they can’t protect people’s constitutional rights. But now, with this ruling, organizers can push those sheriffs to do the right thing.
At the same time, I think it bears acknowledging that this ruling does not stop those sheriffs from working with ICE, but it creates the opportunity for organizers to move them. A second critical provision of the law is that it would have put in coercive requirements that would force local police to act as deportation agents. Again, this ruling clarified that police cannot arrest you for being an undocumented person and they cannot prolong your arrest to keep you in the police car in order to hand you over to ICE. Both of those are violations of people’s basic rights and that part of the law was gutted.
The judge did say that police could ask about people’s immigration status, but he stated that they can’t ask about it based on racial profiling, and it is very difficult to think of situations where a police officer could ask somebody about their immigration status without profiling. And the judge clarified that nobody has to actually answer that question because if you don’t answer it, you can’t be arrested for it. If they did ask and the person did answer or even if you voluntarily offered up your immigration status, that police officer is not allowed to arrest you or hold you. So, it essentially guts those provisions of the law.
The third portion threatened to remove elected officials like me from office for even endorsing a policy other than Senate Bill 4. Even for just publicly and individually opposing the law, it threatened to remove elected officials from office — and that portion of the law was blocked, as well.
How would that even work?
We asked that question in the lawsuit and the judge asked the same question.
I guess the answer is, “It wouldn’t.”
Yes, it wasn’t just removing people from office, but imposing Class B misdemeanors, which could lead up to a year in jail time and $25,000 a day penalties, which adds up to millions of dollars in fines per year to local jurisdictions. So [it was] an extremely coercive law that was trying to force sheriff’s departments and police departments to act as deportation agents. Ultimately, those provisions were effectively blocked, and now local organizers can push police departments and sheriff’s departments to do the right thing.
It seems like all these right-wing claims to be concerned about free speech would have been a little concerned about that, but, “Oh wait….”
You came from an organizing background yourself before you became an elected official, right?
That is right. I was the policy director and organizer, corporate campaigns organizer at Workers Defense Project, which is our local immigrant worker center.
Talk a little bit about some of the organizations that have been working on fighting this. I think I also saw pictures even today of another march against this bill. It seems like people are really still committed to fighting this until it is completely dead. Tell us a little bit about some of the organizations that have been involved in stopping that.
This has become a statewide issue, so there have been statewide calls by organizations for all local elected officials to join in on this lawsuit. What I think was really important and special about this moment was that community organizations on the ground, like Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and Workers Defense Project and United We Dream, were demanding that local elected officials stand up and fight back and sue. There were grassroots attorneys that were advising those organizations through their work. Local Progress, which is the national network of progressive local elected officials, set up infrastructure in Texas to coordinate progressive city council members and county commissioners to play sort of an inside/outside game to stand with the activists, but also work on the inside to move the rest of their local government to join this lawsuit.
I think, if you read Judge Garcia’s opinion, it becomes so clear that both the overwhelming damage that SB4 could have caused, that community members themselves raised, was critical for his decision, but also, it was critical to his decision with how many jurisdictions and municipalities stated that there could be irreparable harm caused by the law to those jurisdictions’ safety and wellbeing if the law went into effect. I think it was really critical that both grassroots organizations like United We Dream, Workers Defense and TOP and an organization like Local Progress were helping to coordinate something that had never been done in the State of Texas before, which was local governments all joining together to sue the governor and state on an immigrants’ rights and social justice issue like this one. It wasn’t just the mayors sweeping in to save everybody.
I think it is interesting to point out that legal decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They actually happen in the context of organizing and pressure. We have seen that several times since the beginning of this administration alone.
That is right. Oftentimes you will just have individual plaintiffs go out on a limb on their own or one city files a lawsuit and the other cities can say that that other city has it handled. In this case, instead, the leadership came from the people and the politicians had to follow.
Since this seems to have been a pretty successful coalition here, what groundwork has this laid for going forward in Texas?
I think that at its core, SB 4 is about division and criminalization of communities of color and ultimately the dehumanization of communities of color. Ultimately, what is at SB 4’s root is at the root of so many of the other battles we are facing with the Trump administration and with the Abbott administration. I think this has laid really important groundwork for us to talk about fighting mass incarceration, fighting against anti-transgender bills like the bathroom laws, because ultimately, this is a coalition that is based around the idea that no one is illegal, no one is inherently criminal and bad. That we all have these basic human rights. I think that motto does not just translate to the immigrants’ rights movement, but rather is an important statement about how we need to fight mass criminalization as a tool of oppression and lift up movements that are fighting against not just deportation, but also things like mass incarceration and unconstitutional policing.
I remember you guys had a fight over another one of those bathroom bills in Texas this year, as well.
Yes, and we barely got away with it not passing. There was also, obviously, lots of really great organizing done on the ground by LGBTQ activists and ultimately, was successful this time around, but it will be back next legislative session.
It seems like there are a lot of lessons people around the country could take from Texas about surviving under Trump.
Yes, we have been in this situation for a while, but it is definitely worse to have the governor of the second largest state in the country that in sync and in line with the federal government on deporting folks who are a political problem for him. There is certainly even more urgency here under the Trump administration, but I think the SB 4 battle is a symbol of hope around the possibility of collective action even in a state like Texas or even in a country under Trump where immigrant communities, folks who are not even allowed by our government to vote, can organize and galvanize a community to stop somebody like Governor Abbott’s top priorities.
What kind of groundwork have you all been laying down there to deal with the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA)?
Our Dreamers are organizing and we are standing beside them to push Congress to pass a bill that gives relief to Dreamers, to put funding for deportation defense in our city budgets, and to continue to organize across cities in models similar to what we did on SB 4, because ultimately it is going to take the kind of collective action that got us the SB 4 injunction to ever get comprehensive immigration reform, to ever get a Dream Act passed. Our Dreamers have, unfortunately, faced the threat of deportation in the past before DACA and they, themselves, stood up, told their stories, and fought and won DACA… We will mourn [DACA’s] loss and it will be devastating, but all we can do is not let them win.
How can people keep up with you and with some of these organizations?
My Twitter is @gregcasar. I have also got a Facebook page that we try to keep pretty active. Then, you can follow the social media for Workers Defense Project, Texas Organizing Project and United We Dream.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.