SAN ANTONIO (KXAN) -- Austin's elected officials were front and center outside the federal courthouse in downtown San Antonio Monday morning protesting the new Texas immigration enforcement law.
Austin City Council Members Delia Garza and Greg Casar, along with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, have been prominent opponents of Senate Bill 4, the law that requires local officials to hold alleged criminals here illegally for federal deportation. Their lawyers argued to U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia that simply speaking against the law could cost them their jobs if the new law is implemented as written. They claim the law violates the First Amendment by restricting free speech and that is grounds for the judge to grant an injunction.
SB4 passed the Texas legislature and was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott back in May. It becomes law Sept 1. Opponents were quick to organize and take it to court. City lawyers and civil rights groups argued that since the law prohibits public officials from endorsing a policy, that would limit immigration enforcement.
Mayor Adler told a crowd outside the courthouse he was shocked, "For merely endorsing a policy, for saying what is on their minds. I can only tell you that I will not stop endorsing a policy counter to Senate Bill 4."
He told KXAN after the hearing what his thoughts were on the removal measures, "That's a huge concern. I think it's just remarkable that our legislature would actually pass a law that would contain a provision that's so fundamentally contrary to the first amendment."
Council Member Casar was also upfront about it, "It's a total violation of my First Amendment rights. I'm going to keep on endorsing a policy that's different than SB 4 regardless of what the governor or the law says. And I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about the effect on my constituents."
In January, Travis County Sheriff Hernandez prohibited deputies and jailers from asking about someone's immigration status and limited how they will work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, causing a major kerfuffle among Republican politicians. Gov. Abbott even cut $1.5 million in state grants to Travis County due to the sheriff's new ICE policy. She later said she would follow any law that passed.
City of Austin lawyers told Judge Garcia that publicly supporting the sheriff's policy over SB4 would bring heavy punishments, thousands of dollars in fines, removal of office and possible jail time.
The state told the judge all of those fears were over-hyped. The attorney general's office said they would never prosecute an elected official for speaking their mind. In their view "endorse" has to have the legal theory of causality. In other words, they would not prosecute an elected official unless their speech led to someone violating the new immigration enforcement law.
State lawyers said it wasn't up to state officials or local officials to decide who can be in the U.S. legally. That's up to the federal government.
"There is an ongoing debate in our country about whether immigration statutes can be amended. Such policy disagreements must be resolved by Congress," said Marc Rylander, spokesperson for the Texas attorney general's office.
However, all this sets the stage for another hearing on Thursday. The day after Gov. Abbott signed the bill into law, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in the federal court in Austin to have it be declared constitutional. Many expect similar proceedings, protests and arguments later in the week.
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