AUSTIN, Texas ― State Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city of San Antonio on Friday, marking the first official enforcement act under SB 4, a sweeping state immigration law passed last year by the Republican-dominated state legislature.
Paxton’s lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, provides the first test for the conservative-backed law aimed at criminalizing so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
The petition accused the San Antonio Police Department and city government of obstructing federal immigration enforcement after officers discovered a tractor-trailer last year with a dozen unauthorized migrants inside. If successful, the lawsuit would force the city to cough up millions in fines and bar San Antonio officials from limiting immigration enforcement in the future.
“We’re hopeful the courts will ultimately grant our request against the city of San Antonio to send the message that all Texas cities must obey the law,” Paxton said in a video announcing the lawsuit.
Paxton’s lawsuit involves police officers’ discovery of a tractor-trailer carrying 12 unauthorized migrants on Dec. 23, 2017. When San Antonio Police Chief William McManus appeared at the crime scene, he said he had jurisdiction over the case under the state’s human smuggling statute and dissuaded an officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations team from getting involved, according to the lawsuit.
McManus also called the legal aid group RAICES to consult with the migrants, the lawsuit says. Unauthorized migrants who witness crimes have the opportunity in some cases to apply for visas based on their cooperation with law enforcement officers.
Police brought the migrants to the station for questioning but did not run background checks on them or fingerprint them, according to the lawsuit.
Nina Perales, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, disputes the facts of the state’s lawsuit and said it’s bound to fail regardless, because it stretches the meaning of SB 4. The law doesn’t require local police to book or fingerprint people based on suspicion that they might be in the country illegally, she said.
“The essence of this lawsuit is claiming that San Antonio police officers should have stepped in the shoes of ICE officers and arrested the smuggling victims,” Perales said. “But SB 4 does not require local police to make immigration arrests and the Constitution forbids it.”
“It’s so far away from what the requirements are for SB 4, it can be nothing other than a publicity stunt,” she added.
Paxton’s lawsuit may also suffer from an additional defect, noted Perales, who is representing the city of San Antonio in a separate lawsuit challenging SB 4. The petition relies heavily on the provision of SB 4 that prohibits local governments from enacting laws or policies that “materially limit” immigration enforcement. Opponents of the law, including Perales’ organization, contended that part of SB 4 was too vague to be enforced.
Those opponents won an injunction that, among other things, temporarily blocked the law’s “materially limit” provision. When police discovered the tractor-trailer last December, Texas was not allowed to enforce the “materially limit” part of SB 4 that Friday’s lawsuit refers to 20 times. (The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that part of the injunction, but later overturned it.)
Last year’s legislative battle over SB 4 pitted conservatives against law enforcement officers from the state’s major cities ― including McManus ― who said the Texas immigration crackdown would undermine trust in immigrant communities.
The law prohibits local governments from declining ICE requests to hold suspected unauthorized immigrants and makes it illegal for local officials to keep police officers from asking about the immigration status of the people they stop for other reasons. Local officials who violate the law can face both jail time and fines.
San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement that he was “fully confident” his city’s police chief hadn’t violated the “applicable provisions” of SB 4. “The city has a long history of cooperating with federal authorities and we will continue to do so,” the statement read.