State of Suspicion

For years, authorities in Texas have aggressively pursued undocumented immigrants. Now a broad coalition of activists are fighting back with community-based solutions, offering a blueprint for immigrants’ rights advocates across the country.

Ilse Mendez stands beneath an oil painting of Jesus Christ in a living room in the Heights, a working-class neighborhood in Laredo, Texas, about two miles from the border. A group of 13 men and women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, are pressed in together on folding chairs, but it’s quiet enough inside to hear the wind whistling through the yard.

They all watch intently as Mendez and her colleague, Berenice Gonzalez, fiddle with a cable connecting a laptop to the television. “We’re going to watch a video of a traffic stop,” Mendez explains in Spanish. The shaky video begins. A state trooper has pulled over a Latino man on the side of the highway and is asking him for a driver’s license he doesn’t have. The two go back and forth for several minutes: The Latino man pleading his case to no avail, the trooper continuing to press. Finally a border patrol cruiser pulls into the frame.

“Does anyone know what went wrong there?” Mendez asks once the video has finished. The crowd murmurs, but no one volunteers an answer. The encounter seems remarkably benign—no violence, no threats. But the driver has made several tiny errors in judgement—rights waived away, opportunities for closure missed, each one compounding into an avalanche of inevitability. Everyone here already knows how the story ends: The man is taken into custody and eventually deported.

Undocumented immigrants gather for an informal “Know Your Rights” meeting led by Berenice Gonzalez and Ilse Mendez of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance.

The group has met here today for a Know Your Rights meeting, an informal advice session organized by the Laredo Immigrant Alliance. Everyone in the room other than Mendez and Gonzalez are undocumented, living in a sort of transnational purgatory. Many of these people have lived in the United States for years, even decades. But still they tread carefully, mindful that even the most innocuous interaction with law enforcement could end in a collision with border patrol and the threat of expulsion. It’s a tension that’s grown even more acute in recent years, as state and federal authorities have ratcheted up immigration enforcement. In Texas, deportations have jumped by more than 50 percent since 2016, primarily among Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan immigrants.

For otherwise law-abiding immigrants, a relatively minor transgression can be the first domino that leads to deportation.

In 2017, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 4, considered by activists to be one of the most explicitly anti-immigrant laws in the country. The so-called “show-your-papers” bill gives Texas police freedom to question people they’ve stopped about their status, and requires law enforcement to cooperate with requests from federal immigration officials. That means for otherwise law-abiding immigrants, a relatively minor transgression—driving without a license, possession of marijuana, even a broken taillight—can be the first domino that leads to deportation. Critics decry this “deportation pipeline” and see the law as tacit racial profiling. As one activist put it, “When you give police this much discretion, you get discrimination.”

The bill, taken together with the federal government’s family separation policies and President Trump’s proposals for a border wall have left many immigrants, both legally documented and undocumented, feeling under assault. That’s especially true in places like Laredo, where 95 percent of the population is Hispanic. “The everyday effect is to signal to brown people that they are not welcome,” says Alex Birnel, of the nonprofit MOVE Texas.

Far from shutting down the immigration debate, however, SB 4 has activated grassroots-level organizations across the state, including many nonprofits that haven’t necessarily viewed immigration as a core focus in the past. “This has allowed us to expand the conversation,” says Bob Libal, director of the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which deals both criminal justice and immigration reform. As a result, this intersectional coalition of activists—both immigrant-focused and not—has begun to notch significant wins on immigration issues, including including a Freedom City policy in Austin and “cite-and-release”-style legislation in San Antonio. In doing so, they’re providing a blueprint for how fighting for immigrant’s rights can galvanize a broad coalition of Americans across the country.

In Texas, undocumented immigrants are at risk of deportation if caught driving without a license, which they are unable to receive. Here, a Texas state trooper in Hidalgo pulls over a driver for speeding and eventually calls Border Patrol. The driver was then held in immigrant detention for one month as he fought his deportation proceeding.

Power to the People

Mendez and the Laredo Immigrant Alliance are representative of the new generation of activists working on the frontlines of SB 4. Mendez joined the organization in 2018 when her DACA status lapsed, exposing her and her four children, now aged 14, 9, 4, and 2, to possible separation. At the time, the alliance served primarily as a support group for Dreamers. Today, that focus has changed. Inside the living room, she hands out plastic bags full of paper packets and laminated information cards to the attendees, all of whom heard about the event through word-of-mouth. (Given the nature of their immigration status, the event is not advertised online.) These include affidavits that help the organization track them if they‘re taken into custody, power of attorney documents for family members, and scripts to recite in case they are pulled over. One is accompanied with cartoons for the words eye—shoes—two—bee—silent (“I choose to be silent”).

By fostering partnership between organizations with differing constituencies and broad focus areas, the Four Freedoms Fund aims
to build a powerful narrative and community power necessary to fight back against
anti-immigrant policy.

Inside, the meeting is friendly, but it’s impossible to ignore the larger crisis outside the door. Green-and-white border patrol trucks are ubiquitous in Laredo, ever-present reminders of the politics that seep into everyday life. Mendez is among those who see the realities of these policies up-close. Now 32, she was born in Nuevo Laredo but came to Texas at age 2 with her family seeking medical care for her younger sister. Today, she enjoys limited protection under DACA, but still worries about being separated from her children.

These in-home advice sessions began as an extension of the group’s outreach campaigns in schools. There, organizers recognized that undocumented parents required greater levels of discretion. So the first private meeting was staged in July, a sort of backyard barbecue for a few friends and family. “This works,” Mendez says. “It’s so community-based at home. It’s that safe environment that we’re trying to build.”

The Laredo Immigrant Alliance hands out packets of information detailing the steps undocumented people should take in case of their arrest.

After 90 minutes, the session wraps up, but most people remain to chat and eat. One woman, Carla (a pseudonym), in her mid-30s, explains that she’s never had a single interaction with police in her decade living in the United States. Some of that is good luck, but her furtiveness has a downside. For years, she says, her husband abused her. Unwilling to expose her family, which included two U.S. citizen children, to deportation, she never called police or other authorities. It wasn’t until a sister-in-law intervened that Carla and the kids were able to leave the house for good.

Anna, in her early 50s, has lived in Laredo off-and-on for 25 years and faces a different reality. She’s been expelled from the U.S. several times, only to raise the $3,000 each time for a coyote to squire her back over the border. But it has become more expensive and difficult in recent years to cross the border, and at her age, ever more physically demanding.

Neither Carla nor Anna—nor any of the dozen-odd people gathered for Mendez’s presentation—had ever heard of SB 4, though its existence doesn’t surprise them. What does is learning about the rights they were unaware of: the ability to review a search warrant, to not open the door to ICE agents, to remain silent. Mendez’s organization has recently expanded to partner with better-equipped deportation defense resources elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley. But the first step, she says, is arming people with knowledge. “If you’re not aware of your rights…” She trails off. “It can be difficult.”

Volunteers and activists rally in Austin in support of a pair of local bills known together as the Freedom City legislation, which requires police to inform suspects that they are not required to disclose their immigration status. It also places reporting requirements on local law enforcement related to arrest rates for certain nonviolent crimes and cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Power in Numbers

The business of taking on something as big and formless as the status quo is often not very glamorous. On this Monday morning, there are no bullhorns or soap-box speeches. Instead, there are folding tables and chairs and the bitter cold blowing off Sombrilla Plaza at the University of Texas at San Antonio. As students shuffle by, a half-dozen fellows from the voter-registration nonprofit MOVE Texas exude unfailing cheer as they attempt to entice their fellow students to register to vote or, perhaps, to join an upcoming rally at the state capitol in favor of SB 672, a longshot bill that, if passed, would repeal SB 4.

MOVE has approached the fight over SB 4 from a different angle than the Laredo group, yet the two have found significant common ground. Both are among dozens of state groups brought together through the Four Freedoms Fund, a project of NEO Philanthropies. By fostering partnership between organizations with differing constituencies and broad focus areas, the fund aims to build a powerful narrative and community power necessary to fight back against anti-immigrant policy.

Erika Elizarraraz (left) and Nery Chavez, fellows with MOVE Texas, delivers their pitch to a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio to join the group in rallying for SB 672, a longshot bill that aims to undo SB 4. • Alex Birnel (left) and members of MOVE Texas debate their next steps at the group’s headquarters in East San Antonio. • A MOVE Texas worker models the “Vote-Bot” costume.

MOVE was launched in 2013 by Birnel and a small group of friends as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to registering young people to vote. Birnel explains his group’s foray into immigration politics as a natural extension of its core voting rights work. “There’s this whole slew of things going on in Texas which amount to a matrix of exclusion—of preclusion—from the system,” he says. Birnel, who moved constantly as a child but ultimately settled in San Antonio, is the son of a white American father and a Panamanian–Filipino mother. As such, he is particularly sensitive to the “colorism” he says undergirds SB 4. “I understand that borderlands mentality,” he says. “It existed in my own home.”

As MOVE’s concerns have broadened, Birnel says, so has its network of partners. His group is on a weekly status call with a coalition of nonprofits called Fuerza TX and has joined nonprofits working toward paid sick leave and other issues. Together, he says, these small community groups hold extraordinary power to effect change. “If we make these demands now when we have momentum,“ he says, “we have a real shot.”

Harnessing the Power

Advocating for social change is, in many respects, the easy part. For Rebecca Sanchez, an organizer who works at the intersection of the immigration and criminal justice system for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, the hard work is in its implementation. Once a month in a cramped library room, the Freedom City policy working group gives the community an opportunity to ask questions of Austin police in a public forum, review racial disparities on arrests, and to document cooperation with ICE. Sanchez describes the back-and-forth over these numbers as “the battle of the truths.”

The meetings can be immensely frustrating, yet they represent perhaps the most significant win to date for immigration activists in Texas. The working group is the result of a pair of bills passed in Austin last summer known together as the Freedom City legislation, a first-of-its-kind response to SB 4. Rather than dismantle the law as SB 672 would, Freedom City places a series of reporting requirements on policing practices and monitors their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. It also, crucially, stipulates that Austin police advise suspects that they have the right to not disclose their immigration status.

Rebecca Sanchez, of Grassroots Leadership, explains how her group and others passed a “Freedom City” law in Austin, Texas that limits the reach of SB 4.

At its heart, Freedom City aims to reduce the number of people who are booked into jail for misdemeanors—things like graffiti, loitering, or possession of small amounts of marijuana—for which black and Latino people are disproportionately taken into custody. By keeping them out of jail for such nonviolent crimes, Freedom City aims to cut off the prison-to-deportation pipeline. “Based on the data we’ve seen, we’ve avoided thousands of arrests,” says Libal, of Grassroots Leadership. “That’s a success. That’s real.”

But the evolution from advocating for policy change to overseeing its implementation has been a learning experience for Sanchez and others in the organization. “Man, I had to swallow that,” Sanchez says of working alongside police. “But we need to be on top of this. Our community needs to be on top of it. Just because we put this on paper, that doesn’t mean anything without community accountability.”

We need to be on top of this. Our community needs to be on top of it. Just because we put this on paper, that doesn’t mean anything without community accountability.

Rebecca Sanchez, Grassroots Leadership

The Freedom City bills were shaped by a coalition of social justice organizations in Austin including the Workers Defense Project, Grassroots Leadership, and United We Dream. The policy does not outright ban the requests for ICE detainers that are at the heart of the SB 4 deportation pipeline. Instead, it represents a flanking maneuver. “We actually took a page from the pro-life movement,” Sanchez says. “Things like waiting periods, reporting requirements—all those things where you’re not attacking the law directly. What you’re doing is chipping away at access to it.”

It’s an unlikely inspiration, perhaps, but an effective one. The legislation was passed unanimously by Austin’s City Council in June 2018 and put into effect that fall. Since its implementation, organizations elsewhere in Texas, including in El Paso, Dallas, and San Antonio have pursued similar measures to reduce arrests for low-level crimes. It’s a flexible framework that allows for locally relevant modifications—indeed, San Antonio, a far more conservative town than Austin, was able to pass a version of “cite-and-release” legislation for low-level crimes.

The sun sets over the border fence in South Texas.

If there is a broader lesson that can be taken from the fight over SB 4 it might be this: The legacy of SB 4 is the network of connected communities and organizations that has emerged in its wake—an authentic, grassroots movement bound together over shared values. “There’s no millionaire or really smart lawyer who’s going to come save us,” says Jose Garza, of the Workers Defense Project. That can make the work of resistance arduous, slow, and uneven. But it is adaptable, and it is durable. Marshall Fitz, Managing Director of Immigration at Emerson Collective, says that if anything, restrictive laws like SB 4 tend to spur social change. “Extreme measures like this that create a crisis are galvanizing,” he says. “And if that galvanizing effect takes root in not an incidental way but in a deeper way, then you’ve got an opportunity for a movement to emerge, and for political and policy changes to occur.”

By tapping into the collective power that this network of individuals, communities, and organizations has built, a path forward in the fight for immigrants’ rights has been illuminated. And that has people thinking even bigger than its current fight. “In some ways, our dreams are much bigger than repealing SB 4,” Libal says. “There is the racist version of Texas that we hope to disassemble. But there’s also the Texas that I believe exists in corners, in pockets of this state. That’s what we want to replicate, scale, and grow. This whole thing is really about the positive vision of the state that we’re working to build.”