Governor cuts funding to law enforcement to penalise Austin, a ’sanctuary’ city offering safety to the undocumented.
Texas, US - Hundreds of protesters took to the Texas capital on Thursday to rally against the halting of more than a million dollars towards law enforcement.
Earlier, Governor Greg Abbott kept to his promise to withhold $1.5 million from Travis County’s law enforcement in a bid to penalise Austin’s "sanctuary city" status.
Sanctuary cities in general offer safety to undocumented migrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Sanctuary city is not an official designation.
Now, Texas lawmakers are discussing Senate Bill 4, which aims to cut funding and impose other consequences on cities that provide safe harbour to the undocumented.
"When I came in, there was a long line to sign up to testify in support of Austin’s sanctuary city status … it’s a lot of people," Cristina Parker, immigration programmes director at the civil rights group Grassroots Leadership, told Al Jazeera.
Parker explained that Abbott’s decision was viewed negatively by the community.
"We all rally around law enforcement. We don’t see any reason behind cutting their funding," she said. "It doesn’t make any sense."
But community concerns do not end there.
Texas legislators added other amendments to the anti-sanctuary city bill on Wednesday.
These include a provision that requires authorities to cooperate with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for deportations.
ICE often issues a written request to local law enforcement agencies to detain an individual they suspect of being in the United States without legal status for 48 hours.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups have called attention to the fact that these requests, known as "detainers", have been found to be in violation of the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which requires due process of the law.
A 2014 memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security admitted that ICE’s detainers were legally questionable.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez ordered her officers not to enforce these detainers, which prompted the protest.
Robert Painter, a lawyer and interim executive director of American Gateways, an organisation that provides low cost legal help to refugees and immigrants fleeing violence and persecution, echoed these concerns.
"There’s no court warrant behind it. Often, there’s not a lot of hard evidence behind it. Detainers aren’t legally binding," Painter told Al Jazeera. "If local law enforcement adheres to this request and hold someone for 48 hours, they’re violating constitutional law."
Another amendment states that if an undocumented person convicted of a Class B misdemeanour or higher is then released and goes on to commit a felony, the person harmed by the said felony can sue the city or municipality.
This measure raised further concerns around discrimination.
"As far as I know, there’s no law in Texas that allows cities to be sued for the illegal actions of US citizens," Painter commented.
’A different sense of urgency’
Al Jazeera contacted Abbott’s office for comment on these concerns but did not receive a reply.
Immigrants in Austin who seek to become legal residents face a long road.
The nearest immigration court is in San Antonio, more than 120 kilometres away, and the majority of current cases will not be heard until November 2019, Painter explained.
A two-year wait amid a hostile state and national government leaves vulnerable migrants in fear, Parker said.
The protests in Austin come as US President Donald Trump continues to target the undocumented, threatening to deport them, and boasting about the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico to stem migration.
But according to Parker, this has given vigour to the movement to protect the undocumented.
"There’s a lot more energy. I credit that with Trump supplying more fear. People feel a different sense of urgency," she concluded.