Advocacy groups, legal clinics see rise in questions related to SB4

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Senate Bill 4, the newly passed Texas immigration law, heads to court for a preliminary injunction hearing, organizations back in Austin say they’re seeing a rise in legal and immigration-related questions related to this law.

Robert Painter with Austin Gateways, a group that works with low-income, Central Texas immigrants, explained that his organization has seen an influx of people applying for services and asking about what changes to immigration law and policy mean for their cases. While Painter said that questions about federal immigration policy have played a role, the uncertainty over SB4 has been a significant factor as well.

“There’s a lot of fear, I think that’s the most common emotion for all of our clients, they just don’t know how to interpret all of the rhetoric and all the changes that seem to happen each week,” Painter said.

He explained that because the immigration process already takes a long time, many of the people in the middle of it are confused about how to proceed considering SB4.

“We have people asking what are the new risks they face if a law like SB4 [goes into effect], for people who have a pending visa like a U visa, they want to know if their receipts give them any protection from deportation,” Painter explained. “We work a lot with crime survivors, particularly women who are survivors with family violence and they want to know whether they can continue to collaborate with law enforcement to report crimes or they witness crimes happening to others.”

American Gateways works with many crime victims, Painter worries that SB4 — if upheld — will have a chilling effect, decreasing the number of reports immigrants make to law enforcement. Now, his team spends more time working with clients to inform them of their constitutional rights and what they should do if they are detained.

American Gateways teamed up with a number of other organizations after the 2016 election in a group, called the Texas Here to Stay Coalition, to better educate Central Texas immigrants about their rights. Two organizations that belong to that coalition are the UT Austin Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic and Immigration Clinic.

Ranjana Natarajan who teaches at the Civil Rights Clinic has been fielding legal questions related to SB4 as her colleagues in the Immigration Clinic have been working with community members to educate them on what the law means for immigrants.

“They’ve been working with family members and members of the community who have lots of questions about their own immigration status and how to plan for the future,” Natarajan explained. “Lots of people have citizenship but they don’t know about it, and lots of people have avenues for getting a visa to stay here permanently and they don’t know about it, and these are things they need attorneys to counsel them on.”

“The legislature, when it’s been working on SB4, has created even greater anxiety for the community people aren’t sure what’s going to happen now that SB4 has now passed,” she added.

As a legal scholar, Natarajan has received questions about the legal implications of SB4.

Natarajan said that SB4 requires county jails to keep people in custody even after they’ve served their sentence if requested to do so by federal immigration. She wonders whether that provision will be viewed by the court as constitutional. She also wonders whether the law would violate elected official’s free speech rights to express political opinions, whether law enforcement officials who are forced to ask about immigration status by SB4 could end up racially profiling people and violating the 14th amendment.

“I think SB4 poses some serious constitutional problems both under the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment and I think the courts will be looking very closely to make sure the state actually has the power to enact that law,” she said.

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