Texas DSA members Join the Fight to Stop a New Anti-immigrant Law
By Glenn Scott, with Monica Olvera, Liliana Pierce and Jen Ramos
Austin DSA has built a large membership of over 640 members by being active as allies against a number of attacks on communities of color, women and LGBTQ people over the last two years. This work has intensified since Trump took office. Perhaps their most important campaign, which other groups can learn from, is their current fight against an anti-immigrant bill.
On May 29th, national media coverage showed footage of hundreds of people in Austin, Texas chanting and protesting in the Capitol against a new anti-immigrant law known as SB4, for “Senate Bill 4.” SB4 is a highly controversial bill that mandates local police and sheriffs to essentially become an arm of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under the bill, local peace officers would be given broad authority to ask the immigration status of anyone stopped by an officer for almost any reason. Thus, the moniker: “Show Me Your Papers Law.” SB4 began as a priority of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott, both of whom come from the right wing of the Republican party.
Early in the session SB4 was referred to as the “sanctuary cities” bill. Several Republican leaders attacked cities that were, in their words, offering “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants, meaning not working hand in hand with ICE to turn over anyone in policy custody that ICE wanted to deport. The bill was in line with President Trump’s early calls for mass deportation of so-called “criminal” undocumented people. The bill mandates cooperation by local police with any requests from ICE to detain a suspected undocumented person. Before this law, sheriffs and some police chiefs in major urban areas in many states had legally refused to detain a person once they were ordered released from jail by a judge. To do so was, in their opinion, a violation of constitutional rights.
Certainly many immigrants rights groups have sought to find ways to offer ”sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants who they felt deserved to have a fair hearing on their case. Several churches across the country have successfully offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants fleeing spouse abuse, drug and gang violence. Republican leaders, in efforts to support President’s Trump’s call for mass deportation, twisted the term “sanctuary cities bill” to imply that local police chiefs and sheriffs who refused to detain an undocumented person already in custody were somehow skating on the law. Actually, the practice of following the constitutional rights of a person once they were released by a judge has been standard practice by many local authorities.
The authors of the bill in the Senate specifically targeted Austin Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who ran on a campaign of constitutional rights of undocumented residents and non-cooperation beyond the legal requirements with ICE. The only female in a field of six, she won handily in the Democratic primary, and five months later in the general election against a Republican. Sheriff Hernandez said in a hearing on the bill in April that SB4 will “coerce local law enforcement to divert scarce resources to enforcing federal immigration laws, at a risk to public safety.”
During hearings in the Senate and the House, hundreds of people, many of them immigrants or family of immigrants, both documented and not, testified and signed in opposition to the bill. Sheriffs and chiefs of police testified that the bill would undermine the trust between the police and the immigrant and Latino communities, leaving their cities and towns less safe. Mayors, lawyers, school administrators and school board members spoke out against the mass deportation provisions of the bill and its potentially devastating impact on families, children, businesses and the Texas economy.
Despite these large protests, the House and the Senate passed the bill. Advocates were outraged that the bill was made far more egregious in the final evening of late-night amendments to the bill in the House, where Tea Party reactionaries one-upped each other.
Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar, one of those arrested at a May 1 protest (see below), has said that “this is the most bigoted bill that has come out of the legislature. It will create massive levels of racial profiling.”
The Governor signed the bill in a private office on a Sunday evening, May 14, away from any media. Within two hours after the private signing was livestreamed on facebook, protesters, including a dozen DSA members, demonstrated in front of the Governor’s mansion.
Monica Olvera, one of the DSA members who became active in the Stop SB4 campaign, spoke about her outrage at the bill: “This bill is a direct threat to the Latinx community. This bill wants to take away the hardworking parents of U.S.-born children. Children should not have to live with the fear that their parents may not be there when they get home from school or after playing with friends.”
Olvera joined Austin DSA and a Bernie-inspired local group: Left Up To Us (LUTU), after getting active in planning a No Ban No Wall rally this past February to protest Trump’s refugee ban. “I worked with several DSA members and LUTU members and liked the work they were doing on a range of issues important to me,” she said. She is a newly elected leader of the LUTU Fundraising Committee and also represents LUTU and Austin DSA in a new coalition of over 20 groups to fight SB4. “Expect to see our impact in the coming months,” she says.
Austin DSA members got involved in the fight against SB4 for two reasons: one, the chapter has members of color, some from immigrant families, who are active in immigrant rights organizations and see this rightly as an all-out attack on the civil rights not only of their families and their communities but of people of color in general.
Two, the Austin DSA leadership has made it a priority to educate and mobilize the chapter on opposing the attacks on immigrants since Trump was sworn in. Leading the fight to stop SB4 was United We Dream, Workers Defense Project and Grassroots Leadership, all three organizations that Austin DSA members had worked closely with for months on immigrants’ rights, family detention centers, sanctuary issues and construction worker safety and health.
DSA members, as allies with immigrant rights organizations, began actively supporting the fight to stop SB4 during the legislative session. Austin DSA had been involved since the first mobilizations around the hearings in the Senate and in the House. After the bill passed both houses, a group of 20 protesters were arrested at a sit-in at the Governor’s office on May Day. Two of the arrested were Co-chairs Danny Fetonte and Chau Ngo. Other DSA members were arrested as well. DSA members also played roles as witnesses and supporters during the civil disobedience and outside at the rally.
The day after the bill was signed into law, Austin DSA’s Feminist Action Committee met. Because of the mobilizing on May Day, our guest speaker at the meeting was Stephanie Garakhanian, Legal Services Director for the Workers Defense Project, a construction worker rights organization. After her presentation on the impact of SB4 on communities of color, the committee members voted to draft a resolution to oppose SB4 for Austin DSA’s monthly meeting three days later. The resolution, passed unanimously by the more than 130 members present, called for members to participate in a Day of Action on May 29 and to join the Summer of Resistance to the bill, which includes actions to promote public education and to call for cities around Texas to join law suits against SB4.
Thirty members signed up to help mobilize members for the actions on 5/29. Atx DSA and LUTU held two phone banks to call 400 members about 5/29. Monica Olvera helped plan the phone banks and organized a poster party where 10 members made 50 posters for the rally.
One day before the Day of Action, another DSA member, Jen Ramos, organized a Wake Up the Governor action at 2 AM, with Mariachi band music blasting and dozens of protesters chanting. The action was called “Mariachi Resistencia,” and was a group effort with the North Texas Dream Team (an immigrant rights group), the Dallas and Austin DSA Chapters, the University of Texas Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Austin Young Democrats.
Jen said, “We wanted to take ownership of our culture and our heritage and remind Governor Abbott that if our communities cannot rest, he shouldn’t either.” He added,”Over 50 protesters were in attendance at 3 AM that evening and the protest was featured by the Texas Observer and Univision nationally.”
On May 29, over 100 Texas DSA members joined 2,000 protesters for the Day of Action at the Texas Capitol. DSA was part of a loose coalition of immigrant rights and civil rights advocacy organizations which planned the action in two weeks. The action included protests inside the Capitol, where hundreds of protesters packed the house gallery and hundreds more filled the Capitol Rotunda on four floors as well as attending a rally afterwards on the Capitol grounds.
Liliana Pierce Mendoza, who is a DSA member, an elected member of the Central Tx Our Revolution and a staff organizer for JOLT, a Latinx empowerment organization, talked about the emerging battle: “There will be many opportunities to fight SB4 throughout the Summer of Resistance. We need to educate, mobilize and act in every way possible leading up to the Sept. 1 implementation.”
Stephanie Gharakhanian, Legal Services Director for the Workers Defense Project, one of the organizations playing a central role in building the campaign against SB4, was guest speaker at the DSA Feminist Action Committee May meeting. Speaking on the actions at the Capitol and the fight ahead, she said:
“On May 29, Texans across the state spoke loudly and clearly that our fight against hateful SB4 is just beginning. We will challenge this law in the courts, we will continue to organize in our communities and register our neighbors to vote, and we will work tirelessly this summer and beyond until SB4 is repealed.”
Immigrant rights groups and civil rights organizations including the DSA are planning a Summer of Resistance. Conference calls have been held with activists in the fight against a similar law in Arizona, SB 1070, which took six years to defeat. Atx DSA co-chairs Fetonte and Ngo attended a gathering of 30 civil rights and immigrants rights organizations to plan next steps in the Summer of Resistance to SB4.
Glenn Scott, Monica Olvera, Liliana Pierce and Jen Ramos are all members of Austin TX DSA.
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