Tiny And Defiant, Texas Town Launches Headfirst Into 'Show Me Your Papers' Debate | KERA News

Tiny And Defiant, Texas Town Launches Headfirst Into 'Show Me Your Papers' Debate

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 9:41 am

A new Texas law banning sanctuary cities has outraged Democrats, immigrant advocates and police chiefs. Joining the opposition is a tiny, defiant city on the Mexican border.

El Cenizo is a city that fought for its very existence. It's all of half a square mile, located on the twisting Rio Grande just east of Laredo. It has fewer than 4,000 residents and only eight city employees.

Many of El Cenizo's original residents came over from Mexico, some illegally. Mindful of its citizens, the fledgling city passed a "safe haven ordinance" 18 years ago that the city's mayor, Raul Reyes, says prohibits city officials from inquiring and disclosing the legal status of the people who live there.

"That's it. Simple as that," Reyes said.

But all these years later, it's not that simple.

In January, President Trump issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities. It's now tied up in the courts.

On Sunday, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a controversial law that forbids local officials from following policies like the one in El Cenizo. Under the law, every peace officer in Texas must have the option of checking the immigration status of anyone they legally detain.

The law also punishes local officials for failing to hold jailed immigrants for federal immigration agents looking to deport them.

Abbott says the law — which goes into effect Sept. 1 — will get dangerous criminal immigrants off the streets.

"Citizens expect law enforcement officers to enforce the law, and citizens deserve lawbreakers to face legal consequences," Abbott said in a YouTube video released Sunday night. "Texans expect us to keep them safe and that is exactly what we are going to do by me signing this law."

El Cenizo, along with Maverick County, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Texas law filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens. It argues that the state of Texas "may not commandeer" local officials to enforce federal law.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund expects to file a second lawsuit, arguing that the "show me your papers" law in Texas is unconstitutional.

Mayor Reyes vows his city will not rescind its safe haven ordinance. "If they want to throw me in jail, go ahead," he said. "I strongly believe in what we're doing."

El Cenizo has been on the hotseat before.

In 1999, when the city passed the safe haven ordinance, it approved another rule declaring that all city business would be conducted in Spanish, the lingua franca of the southern border. English-only advocates from across the country howled, but the ordinance still stands.

Reyes was in high school then. The popular 33-year-old mayor — who's about to get his Master's degree in public administration — is now in his seventh term. He insists that El Cenizo is not protecting unauthorized immigrants.

"The true reasoning behind this is because nobody should have to live in fear of the people who they expect to protect them and work for them," he said. That would be the El Cenizo Police Department, five volunteer officers who don their uniforms after work and on weekends.

The mayor says the little city is all for law and order. In fact, he supports construction of a border wall along El Cenizo's riverside, a favorite crossing point for human and drug smuggling.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, so there's a new Texas law that bans sanctuary cities, and it has outraged Democrats, immigrant advocates and also police chiefs. This measure overrides local laws and empowers police to ask anyone they detain if they are in the country illegally. Joining the opposition is a tiny, defiant city near the Mexican border where NPR's John Burnett has our story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Welcome to El Cenizo, Texas, a city that fought for its very existence. It's all of a half-mile square, located on the twisting Rio Grande just east of Laredo that has fewer than 4,000 residents and only eight city employees. Mayor Raul Reyes is sweeping city hall when he greets me.

RAUL REYES: How are you?

BURNETT: Are you Mayor Reyes?

REYAS: Yes sir, I am. Just doing a little bit of upkeeping here.

BURNETT: For years, this was an impoverished colonia. Without running water, paved streets or electricity, the developer named it Cenizo, the Spanish word for ashen, for his favorite quarter horse. The city was finally incorporated in 1989. Many of El Cenizo's original residents came over from Mexico, some illegally. The mayor stands on the muddy riverbank overgrown with tall cane that's alive with doves and grackles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

BURNETT: Mindful of its citizens, the fledgling city passed a safe haven ordinance 18 years ago which...

REYAS: Prohibits city officials from inquiring and disclosing the legal status of the people that live here. That's it - simple as that.

BURNETT: But all these years later, it's not that simple. In January, President Trump issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities. It's now tied up in the courts. Then, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the controversial Senate Bill 4 earlier this week. Under this law, local officials are forbidden from following policies like the one in El Cenizo. Every peace officer in Texas must have the option of checking the immigration status of anyone they legally detain. The law also punishes local officials for failing to hold jailed immigrants for federal immigration agents looking to deport them. Governor Abbott says the law, which goes into effect September 1, will get dangerous criminal immigrants off the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Texans expect us to keep them safe, and that is exactly what we are going to do.

BURNETT: El Cenizo, along with Maverick County, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens. It argues the state of Texas may not commandeer local officials to enforce federal law. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund expects to file a second lawsuit arguing that the show me your papers law in Texas is unconstitutional. Mayor Reyes vows his city will not rescind the safe haven ordinance.

REYAS: If they want to throw me in jail, go ahead. You know, I strongly believe in what we're doing.

BURNETT: El Cenizo has been on the hotseat before. In 1999, when the city passed the safe haven ordinance, it approved another rule declaring that all city business would be conducted in Spanish, the lingua franca of the southern border. English-only advocates from across the country howled, but the ordinance still stands. Raul Reyes was in high school then. The popular 33-year-old mayor, who's about to get his master's in public administration, is now in his seventh term. He insists that El Cenizo is not protecting unauthorized immigrants.

REYAS: The true reasoning behind this is because nobody should have to live in fear of the people who they expect to protect them and work for them.

BURNETT: That would be the El Cenizo police department - five volunteer officers who don their uniforms after work and on weekends. The mayor says his little city is all for law and order. In fact, he supports construction of a border wall along El Cenizo's riverside, a favorite crossing point for human and drug smuggling. John Burnett, NPR News, El Cenizo, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.