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

A conversation with Austin city councilman Greg Casar.

Sarah Jaffe September 5, 2017

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. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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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