Council Member Greg Casar steers Austin's fight against SB 4 —
September 30, 2020

Council Member Greg Casar steers Austin’s fight against SB 4

By Lesly Reynaga

The legislative session that ended in May brought to light one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in modern state history — Senate Bill 4. Better known as Governor Greg Abbott’s crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” SB 4 is facing widespread resistance from pro-immigrant communities around Texas. At the local level, District 4 Council Member Greg Casar has been a major player in steering the legal battle against the measure.

“This is bigger than Texas,” Casar said. “If Senate Bill 4 is allowed to go into effect, we can expect similar laws across the country. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, recently called Texas Senate Bill 4 a ‘positive step’ that ‘makes sense for the citizens of our country.'”

Activists against House bill SB4 (Photo by Marco Galaviz Luna)

SB 4 will ban any policy that limits cooperation with federal immigration agents and threatens to fine or jail elected officials who run into conflict with its provisions. The law will also allow police to question the immigration status of anyone being detained or arrested thanks to what’s called the “show me your papers” provision. The law is set to take effect September 1.

Austin and Travis County are not alone in the fight against the measure. Cities and counties across Texas, including San Antonio, Bexar County, Dallas, El Paso, El Cenizo and Houston have joined in challenging SB 4 in court.

“Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Garza, Council Member Renteria, and I all filed sworn declarations with federal court to show how dangerous and unlawful SB 4 is,” Casar stated. “From the beginning, we knew we’d probably have both the Governor’s Mansion and the White House against us in this fight. But our community is not backing down, so your City Council is not backing down.”

The lawsuit contends a broad range of violations, with the most crucial arguments centered on the First, Fourth and 14th amendments, as well as the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

The suit claims SB 4 violates the First Amendment rights of elected and appointed officials by threatening to punish them if they support any policy that limits local enforcement of immigration laws. This subjects sheriffs, constables, police chiefs and other local leaders to Class A misdemeanor charges, which attorneys such as Texas Civil Rights Project’s Efrén Olivares consider unconstitutional.

“Government cannot tell you what to say or not to say based on the content of what you’re saying, which is exactly what SB 4 does,” Olivares said. “This law presents some very complicated constitutional questions and raises constitutional concerns.”

Photo by Marco Galaviz Luna

Additionally, the law will require jails to comply with all immigration detainers, or requests from the federal government to local jails to hold someone beyond when they would normally be released so immigration agents can potentially deport them. Attorneys say such clause violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizure.

The suit supports the hundreds who testified against the bill in the Legislature claiming that SB 4 is racially discriminatory, which is, in legal terms, a violation to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The suit argues the law will disproportionately impact the Latino community in Texas, allowing police to profile Hispanics as potential undocumented immigrants. According to the litigators, the law’s “show-me-your-papers” provision ensures that brown-skinned or Spanish-speaking Texans can be asked about their immigration status even during routine traffic stops.

Lastly, the suit argues that SB 4 undermines the authority of the federal government, violating the Supremacy Clause. The suit argues that immigration is strictly the feds’ domain and, therefore, states cannot change or create their own immigration laws. For instance, states cannot make optional immigration detainers mandatory.

greg casar
Greg Casar

The youngest City Council Member in Austin’s history, Greg Casar is an avid supporter of civil rights. Last June, he was arrested along with nearly two dozen other protesters cited for criminal trespassing after staging a sit-in at the Governor’s office. Immigrant community members, faith leaders and other elected officials were at the Texas State Capitol in protest of the bill, which is expected to head to Abbott’s desk in a few weeks. Protesters urged Abbott to veto the legislation when it gets to his desk. If he does sign the bill into law, however, the group says they will continue with protests in the streets.

“Through this law, he [Abbott] cannot coerce us into betraying our immigrant communities, into turning our police against our immigrant communities,” Casar said. “And even though this law tries to criminalize elected officials and even remove them from office for fighting for immigrants, we’re not going to be coerced and bullied into doing that.”

Casar’s involvement in pro-immigrant should come to no surprise based on his record. He’s a native Texan and the son of Mexican immigrants. He previously served as policy director for Workers Defense Project and spearheaded campaigns that won major policy reforms to improve wages, education and workplace safety across Austin, garnering national attention. His priorities as a city official include social equity, shared prosperity, affordability, environmental stewardship and public safety.

Casar authored the initiative making Austin the first Fair Chance Hiring city in the South. These new rules provide an opportunity for Austinites to be judged based on their potential rather than solely on their conviction history. He sponsored and passed over a dozen major housing initiatives aimed at keeping working-class and middle-class people in Austin. These initiatives dedicated unprecedented amounts of city budget dollars to affordable housing construction and rehabilitation programs, and made changes in Austin’s urban planning to combat economic segregation in housing.

He has advocated for a comprehensive community policing program for North Austin and better staffing for emergency services workers. He worked to bring several new or improved park spaces to District 4, which has the least amount of park space out of all City Council districts. Casar initiated policies to raise the minimum wage for both city employees and private-sector workers on city contracts. He also fought to ensure North Austin’s transportation issues are a priority for all of City Hall by dedicating funding to fix Austin’s most dangerous intersections—many of those in District 4—and worked with constituents to bring needed sidewalks and crosswalks to neighborhood schools.

It is a pivotal time for Austin’s growing Latino population to stand up and defy laws that attempt to diminish a community that has been part of this state and country’s history long before it became what it is today. Luckily, Austin is not alone in the fight.

“Abbott and Trump want immigrants and their families in our community to live in fear every day,” Casar assured. “There’s just one thing standing in the way: all of us.”

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