In Hurricane-Ravaged Texas, Immigrant Justice Fight Offers Glimmer of Hope

A conversation with Austin city councilman Greg Casar.

Sarah Jaffe

Producer Harvey Weinstein attends The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 26592_009 (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TNT)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same.

Immigrant communities, folks who are not even allowed by our government to vote, can organize and galvanize a community to stop Governor Abbott’s top priorities.

Greg Casar: I am Greg Casar, and I am a city councilman in Austin representing District 4.

Sarah Jaffe: A lot of things have been going on in Texas this week. I wanted to briefly start off by talking about Hurricane Harvey and the outlook for Texas. Talk about what is going on in the state in terms of recovery efforts.

Greg: The devastation in Houston has been tragic and enormous. We are still learning about the scale. I grew up in Houston. Everybody knows someone or multiple folks who were affected by the floods, and we are still mourning the deaths here in Austin. A lot of folks are stepping up. Many people have chartered their own buses to bring people here from the Gulf Coast — and have gotten their own rafts and boats to go and save people themselves. The city of Austin has sent first responders, medics and aid. We just signed a lease for a mega-shelter to house about 2,000 people who are likely being evacuated across the state.

It has been a very hard time for folks here in Texas, but we have all had a chance to also recognize each other’s collective humanity. Everyday Texans have been helping strangers — have been opening up their homes, hearts and wallets. There has been really inspirational collective action even in the devastation.

I think it is really important to note, since we are talking about immigration and immigrants, that Houston is one of the largest homes to undocumented folks in the country. It is, by many counts, one of the most diverse cities in America. There are many undocumented people who will not be eligible for FEMA direct cash assistance, because our government has continued to label folks as criminal, as undocumented, instead of recognizing their collective humanity the way we should.

Sarah: Yes, one of the things that people commented on a lot was the question of whether immigration checkpoints were still going to be in effect while people were trying to evacuate ahead of the storm.

Greg: Yes, and there were back-and-forth answers about that. That, I am sure, caused more suffering and damage to those undocumented families. I was actually at a shelter here in Austin — one of our smaller shelters. It was Monday night. I heard firsthand from folks what is becoming common knowledge across the state, which is that many families that are evacuating the coast are scared of coming to our government shelters. They are scared that their immigration status might be checked and that they will be targeted in their moment of need. Austin Police are not checking immigration status at our shelters, but I understand why people are afraid. Greg Abbott and Donald Trump have created that fear, and they have consistently imposed that fear on immigrants in our community.

Sarah: We are also here to talk about something slightly less depressing, although it is an ongoing fight. Tell us about the struggles on the latest anti-immigrant bill in Texas.

Greg: So, just a few days ago, Federal Judge Orlando Garcia declared that the major provisions of the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 are unconstitutional and unlawful and are blocked from going into effect. Thanks to that court ruling, that discriminatory law has been stopped in its tracks. I am really grateful not just for the judge’s ruling, but most importantly for the enormous statewide organizing effort that was led by immigrant organizers themselves to fight Senate Bill 4 every step of the way. The battle was fought from the legislature to our city halls, where the movement pushed city council after city council in every major metropolitan area in the state to sue. It was fought in small towns, including bedroom communities, college towns, or cities on the border. Everyone joined together to successfully block all the most substantial provisions of the law.

That ruling has brought some real relief to everyday families. Just on Wednesday morning, I was receiving phone calls and talking to constituents who were asking for access to a lawyer or asking if they need to find a way to sell their house in the month of September, out of concernt that, if they were deported, they would not get a chance to sell their house. Then, Wednesday night, folks were in tears and celebrating. That brings so much needed relief, but I think — much more importantly — it is a glimmer of hope about what collective action can do even in the state of Texas. It shows how grassroots organizations can successfully oppose the anti-immigrant agenda of some of the most powerful people in the state.

Sarah: Talk about some of the organizations that have been working on fighting this.

Greg: This has become a statewide issue, so there have been statewide calls by organizations for all local elected officials to join in on this lawsuit. What I think was really important and special about this moment was that community organizations on the ground, like Texas Organizing Project, Workers Defense Project and United We Dream, were demanding that local elected officials stand up and fight back and sue. There were grassroots attorneys who were advising those organizations through their work. Local Progress, which is the national network of progressive local elected officials, set up infrastructure in Texas to coordinate progressive city council members and county commissioners to play an inside-outside game to stand with the activists, but also work on the inside to move the rest of their local government to join this lawsuit.

If you read Judge Garcia’s opinion, it becomes so clear that understanding the overwhelming damage that Senate Bill 4 could have caused — the issues that community members themselves raised — was critical for his decision. Another critical factor was how many jurisdictions and municipalities stated that there could be irreparable harm caused by the law to safety and wellbeing if the law went into effect. I think it was really critical that organizations like United We Dream, Workers Defense and Local Progress were helping to coordinate something that had never been done in Texas before. Local governments all joined together to sue the governor and state on an immigrants’ rights and social justice issue like this one. It wasn’t just the mayors sweeping in to save everybody.

Sarah: Tell us a little bit more about what this law would have done were it able to go forward.

Greg: First, the law would have mandated that Texas sheriffs honor all federal deportation requests, called detainer requests, which hold immigrant people in jail because they are immigrants for longer than they should be held in jail so that they can be deported. That provision was blocked, and that was a critical provision in the law. That allows sheriffs, like our sheriff here in Travis County which covers Austin, to continue her policy of not unconstitutionally holding people. And it opens up the opportunities for organizers to organize in more than 200 other Texas counties to get those counties to follow that lead, because those sheriffs have oftentimes held up the state as an excuse for the reason why they can’t protect people’s constitutional rights. But now, with this ruling, organizers can push those sheriffs to do the right thing.

At the same time, I think it bears acknowledging that this ruling does not stop those sheriffs form working with ICE. But it creates the opportunity for organizers to move them.

A second critical provision of the law is that it would have put in coercive requirements that would force local police to act as deportation agents. Again, this ruling clarified that police cannot arrest you for being an undocumented person, and they cannot prolong your arrest to keep you in the police car in order to hand you over to ICE. Both of those are violations of people’s basic rights and that part of the law was gutted.

The judge did say that police could ask about people’s immigration status. But he stated that they can’t ask about it based on racial profiling, and it is very difficult to think of situations where a police officer could ask somebody about their immigration status without profiling. And the judge clarified that nobody has to actually answer that question, because if you don’t answer it, you can’t be arrested for it.

Thirdly, the law threatened to remove elected officials like myself from office for even endorsing a policy other than Senate Bill 4

Sarah: I think it is interesting to point out that legal decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They actually happen in the context of organizing and pressure. We have seen that several times since the beginning of this administration alone.

Greg: That is right. Oftentimes you will just have individual plaintiffs go out on a limb on their own, or one city files a law suit and the other cities can say that that other city has it handled. In this case, instead, the leadership came from the people — and the politicians had to follow.

Sarah: Since this seems to have been a pretty successful coalition here, what groundwork has this laid for the future in Texas?

Greg: I think that, at its core, Senate Bill 4 is about division and criminalization and dehumanization of communities of color. Ultimately, these problems are at the root of so many of the other battles we are facing with the Trump administration and the Abbott administration. I think this fight against Senate Bill 4 has laid really important groundwork for us to talk about fighting mass incarceration and fighting against anti-transgender bills like the bathroom laws. Ultimately, this is a coalition that is based around the idea that no one is illegal — no one is inherently criminal and bad. We all have these basic human rights. We need to fight mass criminalization as a tool of oppression and lift up movements that are fighting against not just deportation, but also things like mass incarceration and unconstitutional policing.

Sarah: I remember you guys had a fight over another one of those bathroom bills in Texas this year, as well.

Greg: Yes, and we barely got away with it not passing. There was also, obviously, lots of really great organizing done on the ground by LGBTQ activists. That organizing was ultimately successful this time around, but the bill will be back next legislative session.

Sarah: It seems like there are a lot of lessons people around the country could take from Texas about surviving under Trump.

Greg: Yes, we have been in this situation for a while. But it is definitely worse to have the governor of the second largest state in the country in line with the federal government on deporting folks who are a political problem for him. There is certainly even more urgency here under the Trump administration. But I think the Senate Bill 4 battle is a symbol of hope around the possibility of collective action, even in a state like Texas or in a country under Trump. Immigrant communities, folks who are not even allowed by our government to vote, can organize and galvanize a community to stop Governor Abbott’s top priorities. 

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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