A Texas-sized bigotry bill

May 11, 2017

Charles Holm reports on Texas' "sanctuary cities ban" that would essentially deputize local police as deportation agents--and on the efforts of activists to resist.

TEXAS GOV. Greg Abbott went on Facebook Live on Sunday, May 7, to sign legislation that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called "the worst racial profiling, anti-immigrant bill in the country."

Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), often referred to in the media as a "sanctuary cities ban," is similar in many regards to Arizona's SB 1070, the infamous "show me your papers law" passed in 2010--many provisions of which were later overturned in legal challenges. SB 4 places Texas, already a center of xenophobia and racist law enforcement, at the leading edge of the national wave of cruel immigrant crackdowns.

SB 4 bans "sanctuary" cities and campuses in the state of Texas. It requires cities and universities to provide information on immigration status, if asked, and imposes fines of up to $25,000 a day for failing to do so--and even the removal from office of elected officials who refuse to comply.

The law also allows local police and other so-called "peace officers" in Texas to ask about the nationality and immigration status not only of individuals under arrest, but also of victims of and witnesses to alleged crimes.

A May Day sit-in at Gov. Greg Abbott's office against the SB 4 hate bill
A May Day sit-in at Gov. Greg Abbott's office against the SB 4 hate bill

Abbott justified the law with the standard xenophobic talking point that he is only trying protect citizens from dangerous immigrants. Like many right wingers trying to spread the myth of immigrant criminality in the face of evidence that shows the opposite, he referred to the 2015 murder of Kate Steinle in California by an undocumented immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

"He should never have been in this country," Abbott said in his Facebook Live address. "If he hadn't, Kate would still be alive today."

Abbott didn't mention a statement issued a week earlier by police chiefs from six of the state's biggest cities--not exactly known as friends of immigrant rights--which declared that "SB 4 is not the answer to immigration reform; rather it is political pandering that will make our communities more dangerous."

The day after Abbott signed SB 4 into law, the Texas attorney general filed a pre-emptive lawsuit to get in front of the numerous legal challenges that the state knows are coming--and try to have the law's legality decided in a single court. The state's suit charges Austin officials of being "publicly hostile to cooperation with federal immigration enforcement."

ALTHOUGH THIS is a major setback, Abbott's decision to sign SB 4 unannounced and out of the public eye via an Internet live stream shows that the law faced, and will continue to face, a fight led largely by undocumented students and workers across the state.

As Abigail Hauslohner wrote in February in the Washington Post, Texas' capital of Austin developed "a vibrant sanctuary movement...during President Barack Obama's first term, when his administration carried out a record number of deportations."

After SB 4 was introduced in the state Senate, a group of students, faculty and staff at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, calling themselves Sanctuary UT started a petition campaign demanding that the UT administration "declare in words and establish in action a sanctuary campus."

Many campus organizations, including the University Leadership Initiative, United Students Against Sweatshops, Amnesty International and the International Socialist Organization, endorsed a May 1 walkout in support of the petition's demands, and held numerous organizing meetings and actions in the frantic days leading up to, and now following, SB 4 being signed into law--including an organizing panel on April 20 and a Longhorns Against SB 4 day of action on April 26.

There was also an occupation of the governor's office on May Day, in which 24 people were arrested, including City Council member Gregorio Casar. Immigrant rights and socialist groups around the city supported the action.

While the numbers were lower than some expected for the May 1 walkout and action at the governor's office, the actions against SB 4 show that increasing numbers of people are willing to struggle against these racist and blatant attacks on Texas' immigrant and working-class populations.

After hearing that Abbott signed the bill into law Sunday night, around 100 activists gathered outside the governor's mansion in protest. Several speakers expressed the need for organizing escalating actions in the streets and workplaces. Caesar spoke up for the electoral strategy that the Democratic Party has pushed ever since it urged at the 2006 "mega-marches" for immigrant justice that "today we march, tomorrow we vote."

If anything, what the last few days, and indeed the last decade, has shown is that voting and "speaking truth to power" is not enough--and the Democratic Party is a roadblock to stopping, let alone overturning, racist laws like SB 4.

ACTIVISTS need to figure out how the struggle against SB 4 can move forward--and recent student and citywide organizing provide some lessons for where to go from here.

The Sanctuary UT movement continues, and organizers already agreed in late April that the movement's success will depend on building stronger coalitions and broader networks among students, faculty and staff willing to engage in noncompliance actions against UT's administration and the new law.

This means not only mobilizing people who are already organizing, but also drawing new people into the movement. As Sanctuary UT stated in an April 30 press release:

We are demanding sanctuary. We are building solidarity. And we know that we have the power to win. The function of UT depends on the work and activities of its students, faculty and staff. It is our solidarity--as student and workers--against all forms of oppression that will make sanctuary possible, even as we continue organizing and building a larger movement beyond campus for the safety and liberation of all oppressed people!

Just as these UT students, faculty and staff realize that they cannot rely on an administration which only pays lip service to diversity while simultaneously attacking students and exploiting workers, the larger movement against SB 4 cannot rely on the Democratic Party or top-down NGO organizations for leadership.

Crucial for this ongoing fight will be efforts by grassroots immigrant and working class organizations ready to build solidarity with and across other movements against oppression--while mobilizing, whenever necessary, a rapid response against deportations and threats against city officials who refuse to comply with this racist law.

As one student organizer stated at a Sanctuary UT campaign meeting back in April on the demands for sanctuary: "I am undocumented, and I need this all right now! In fact, we need more!"

The urgency of struggle continues despite setbacks and hard times ahead. It is always time for solidarity--and that means fighting SB 4 and all anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric, from Austin to Washington, D.C., and around the world. Sanctuary for all is a demand that knows no borders!

Further Reading

From the archives