How Texas Activists Plan to Dismantle Anti-Immigrant Bill SB 4 Before It Goes Into Effect

Lead Photo: Commons "Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas” by World Travel & Tourism Council is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Commons "Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas” by World Travel & Tourism Council is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Read more

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 (SB 4) into law on Sunday, he did it under cover of night. Without prior notification, he gave life to the bill – which intends to quell sanctuary cities – during a Facebook Live session. Some Texans received the notification as it happened in real time. Others learned about it after the fact. It’s not that organizers and elected officials opposed to SB 4 didn’t expect the bill to pass, but they didn’t anticipate that Abbott would choose to do it in – as many have described it – such a cowardly way. With the law set to go into effect on September 1, Texans who know how SB 4 will affect the undocumented communities are gearing up for a summer of resistance.

Enacting the law will do more than ban sanctuary cities. SB 4, which has earned comparisons to Arizona’s “show me your papers” law (SB 1070), allows police officers to ask children about their immigration status, encourages racial profiling because of a “show me your papers” clause, and gives law enforcement permission to target the most vulnerable undocumented immigrants at homeless shelters and domestic violence centers.

SB 4 will force all officials to carry out anti-immigrant policies. Failure to comply with the provisions laid out in the bill could result in a penalty of $1,500 for the first time, and then $25,500 for each subsequent offense. With so much at stake, officials like Austin City Council Member Gregorio Casar have led the fight against this destructive bill.

On May 1, he staged a nine-hour sit-in at Abbott’s office alongside a group of activists. The day after Abbott’s Facebook Live video, Casar joined protesters outside the governor’s mansion to denounce SB 4. It’s this outspokenness that has landed Casar – and other elected officials from Travis County – as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton. Casar, who calls it a “frivolous suit,” says it’s unusual to be sued by Texas’ top legal official for questioning the constitutionality of SB 4.

“I believe this is another attempt by Texas’ leaders to coerce our local leaders into betraying our communities. And that is nothing new for Texas,” Casar tells me in a phone interview. “Texas has been found guilty by federal judges of intentional discrimination with regard to voter IDs, with intentional racial discrimination with how they draw districts. It is part of what Texas leadership has done texas to try to repress speech and to try to repress communities.”

But this suit won’t force Casar to just accept that SB 4 has passed. Working with other leaders and activists, he’s dedicating the next few months to putting a stop to it. As he explained, those opposed to SB 4 will put into motion a manifold strategy, which include cities – like El Cenizo – challenging the bill’s constitutionality in court, and community organizers defending immigrants and pushing officials to resist.

“Ultimately, the governor is not the king, and he does not get to tell our police departments what to do,” he says. “So we will resist turning our law enforcement agencies into extensions of Trump’s deportation force, and then, there has to be a longer-term electoral strategy, because folks like Trump and Greg Abbott want to win elections based on the misery they cause in our communities. We’re working on creating the backlash necessary to make it hurt them electorally, even though they want it to help them.”

Voting in 2018 – when Abbott plans to seek re-election – will be key, Mary Moreno, communications director for the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), explains. Texas’ voter turnout has lagged the national average for decades, according to Kera News. Moreno hopes that this discriminatory bill will motivate voters to hit the polls.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of things that Texans can do to fight SB 4 – like joining TOP, which has several actions planned in the next few weeks, or other organizations. “It might seem like a very onerous task to become an activist, but it’s actually really simple,” Moreno says. “If we all don’t fight, nothing’s going to change, and so I would encourage people to join an organization. And if you don’t want to join, you can donate, people can definitely use that help. [And] especially now, Facebook has made it easy to contact your local elected official, like that’s really valuable when senators or your reps hear from you. It really does make a difference.”

Moreno, who worked with Center for Community Change’s Promise Arizona, has seen firsthand how the sustained efforts of activists paid off. But it didn’t happen overnight. After Arizona enacted its “show me your papers” law in 2010, Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the state’s infamous anti-immigrant official – was still re-elected in 2012. But, as a result of more people becoming invested and energized, Arpaio lost in 2016.

She’s not just looking at Arizona as an example, she also looking further back in history to California. Today, California is reliably Democrat nowadays, but this wasn’t always the case. “I’m hoping Arizona and Texas are on the California path, like when California had their [Proposition 187] with Pete Wilson when he attacked immigrants. California was under Republican control. Wilson was a Republican, and now, they are the bluest state. So it really did change the politics there.”

But, as Jose P. Garza – the executive director of Workers Defense Project – states, it’s also necessary to look at Texas’ own past. There are plenty of examples when state officials have used the Latino community as scapegoats, which has led to different groups of people to come together to resist hateful policies. Workers Defense is working with allies and giving immigrants the platform they need. They also haven’t forgotten a group that’s easy to be overlooked, but who will deeply feel the impacts of SB 4.

“Some of the people who will be most impacted by this bill are children,” Garza says in a phone call. “Our children have been living with an enormous amount of fear since the election, since the introduction of SB 4. So they felt it was really important to make their voices heard. We have been working with them to help them get ready to testify in front of house and senate committees, to speak up outside the capitol.”

What’s clearest after speaking to Casar, Morales, and Garza is that this summer is extremely crucial – and not just for Texans. If SB 4 inspires other states to pass similar laws, we need to pay attention to and support activists in Texas, who will provide a resistance blueprint to follow.

A good way for Texans to start is to join the Texas’ Moms Fight Back/Madres de Texas en la Lucha march taking place on Mother’s Day. In Austin on May 14, activists will gather at City Hall at noon, local time. Learn more about the march here.